As universities and colleges respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, staff wellbeing should be a priority.
“Staff wellbeing has to be front and centre right now,”
says Gemma Dale, wellbeing and engagement manager at the University of Manchester. Although the institution hasn’t seen a significant rise in staff reporting stress and anxiety since the pandemic broke, Gemma says,
“we are expecting it, because all the evidence points towards a looming mental health impact.”
Recognising invisible issues Indeed, the interim findings of the Institute of Employment Studies’ COVID-19 homeworker wellbeing study show that half of all respondents reported not being happy with their work-life balance. Further, a third frequently feel isolated, more than a fifth (21%) are worried about job security and two-fifths (41%) harbour health concerns for family members.
Meanwhile, research into the early mental health impact of lockdown from academics at Manchester1 concludes that social distancing and isolation associated with COVID-19 policy has had ‘substantial negative impact on the mental health and wellbeing of the UK public’.
There’s also an issue of visibility and the risk that people working from home who are struggling may go unseen. Indeed, data from Mind2 shows nearly a third of people wouldn’t feel able to talk openly with their manager if they were stressed. With that in mind, Manchester has taken a proactive approach.
Yoga and colouring books
When campus closed, the university rapidly redesigned its staff wellbeing webpages, creating resources including podcasts and videos, interviews with senior leaders, yoga classes and mindfulness sessions – even a Manchester-themed colouring book. Some resources target furloughed staff, others support people who now find themselves juggling work with home commitments.
Gemma developed an hour-long workshop, offering advice for managers on how to support their teams.
“For the first session, I set a limit of 30 participants and wondered whether we’d get any take-up. In fact, we had a waiting list of over 100.”
After three weeks of daily workshops, about 400 managers have now benefited.
“They know how important it is,”
It’s a similar picture at East Coast College. Chief executive and principal, Stuart Rimmer, says:
“We’ve been focused on staff wellbeing through this period and we’ve worked hard to put in systems that socially connect people, whether that’s with weekly Zoom meetings, online resources, or online prayer groups, book clubs, virtual running clubs and more. We’ve really gone to town.”
Leading by example
Meanwhile, at Basingstoke College of Technology, the lead has come from the very top.
“Our principal has modelled behaviour, screen-sharing during Google meets, making videos of his little boy playing in the garden, and sharing Powerpoints. That shows everyone we’re in it together,”
says Scott Hayden, digital innovation specialist at the college.
It also shows that perfection should not be the enemy of the good, says Jisc subject specialist in digital practice, Scott Hibberson.
“When senior leaders share videos that aren’t intimidatingly professional or overly polished, it sends an important message to staff who might have been wondering how they were going to be judged when delivering in this format to students.
Many teachers and tutors are out of their comfort zone, being asked to work in ways that may be new to them, and some are struggling. In the workshops I deliver around digital identity and wellbeing, staff tell me they need support. They are searching for guidance on what to focus on and what to deliver.
When senior leaders show confidence to take the plunge, and show support for staff in this way, it trickles down and benefits everyone.”
Retaining the benefits
As colleges and universities make rapid adjustments to protect staff and students, delivering high-quality teaching and protecting wellbeing as they do so, new ways of working are starting to emerge. East Coast College’s Stuart Rimmer says:
“I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by the amount of creativity I’ve seen from staff. Being online has allowed us to explore that and we’ll keep some of those changes post-COVID.
For example, holding meetings online has allowed people who wouldn’t normally be able to attend – perhaps because they have family responsibilities or because the time doesn’t sit within their part-time hours – to get involved. Online learning has, in some ways, really enhanced our system.”
Forecasting further changes ahead, the University of Manchester’s Gemma Dale is developing a range of one-hour online workshops on work-life balance, self-care, stress and other areas as staff start to consider a phased return to work. She is also revising her management training sessions to support people through the next phase of disruption:
“We know that people often process trauma later, so we’re looking at a ramped-up programme of counselling and support over the coming year.”
A moral obligation
“Taking care of the mental wellbeing of our staff is the right thing to do from a human perspective,”
“It’s a moral obligation as an employer – and also, when people are in a good space mentally and physically, they’re likely to be more effective in the workplace.”
That’s why it’s crucial to act now, Gemma concludes.
“We’re repeating the message that we care deeply about staff wellbeing, consistently reminding people that there are multiple places they can go for support, tools they can access, forums they can join. It’s about creating an environment in which people feel able to speak up when they need some help”.
- 1 Public perceptions and experiences of social distancing and social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic: A UK-based focus group study: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.04.10.20061267v1.full.pdf
- 2 Stressed out staff feel unsupported at work, Mind website: https://www.mind.org.uk/news-campaigns/news/stressed-out-staff-feel-unsu...