Wellbeing of higher education staff | Education Support
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Wellbeing of higher education staff

Our CEO Sinéad Mc Brearty is joined by Professor Gail Kinman, Birkbeck, University of London, an occupational health psychologist and leading light on research on wellbeing in the higher education workforce. They discuss the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the wellbeing of higher education staff and what can be done to support them. 

What do you think the main impacts of the current situation are on the higher education workforce?

Like everyone, staff in higher education have faced many challenges in light of the coronavirus pandemic, much of which has led to an increased workload:

  • The requirement to work from home at very short notice, and may not have had the right equipment and software, but were expected to seamlessly adapt to preparing lectures and supporting students
  • Having adequate and sustainable workspaces
  • Converting lectures to online mode and dealing with students who may be less engaged with this format
  • Balancing work demands with caring and domestic responsibilities; often having to work when young children have gone to bed for example
  • Changes to the sector once the pandemic is over; job insecurities, possible mergers, talk of new ways of delivery- all of which bring uncertainty which is a powerful cause of anxiety

What practical steps can individuals take to address some of these issues and look after themselves and their colleagues?

Many people are exhausted with the new way of working so prioritising self-care to preserve energy is very important as this situation continues over the longer term. 

It is particularly important to set a routine to try to contain the job and not let it spill over into all aspects of life – building in ‘recovery time’, and remembering to spend time with family, who are more important than any job!

Making sure that you have a strong, supportive network and making time to connect with colleagues, share tips and not just about work.

Current research on working from home is finding that organisations are not really understanding the additional pressures being put on people working online, believing that the workload is still the same.  It might be helpful to keep a diary which sets out what is being done and how long it is taking which could help managers understand the true picture when setting future work.

It is also important to try and look for positives, like being able to spend more time with family, to try and buffer the many demands being placed on us.

Boundary management has become much more important and we haven’t all necessarily taken time to understand this, and this is probably a key skill in dealing with the current situation.

This is a massive area; there is a lot of research to show that people have different preferences as to how they like to integrate their work and personal lives.  Some people, for example, prefer to spend long hours in the office and then come home and do nothing work-wise, others prefer to do everything at home, other prefer a combination.  At the moment, people have been thrown into a situation where everything needs to happen at home and it can be difficult to set boundaries if you have never had to do that.

Setting physical and psychological boundaries becomes very important. For example, setting ‘rules of engagement’ with family and setting aside time to spend with them. Doing a particular activity to signal this is helpful, for example change your clothes, put on the radio, sit outside in the garden to allow you to switch off from being a worker.  This can be a particular challenge for people in higher education – switching between different modes.

Against a backdrop where mental wellbeing has been of growing concern, what things would you encourage line managers to do with their staff to support them?

Higher education is in a position of considerable uncertainty and people are worried about their jobs, and it is important to understand the drivers on both sides.  Recruitment and retention should be prioritised, but not at the expense of staff wellbeing.  There is a lot of talk about student wellbeing, but not as much about staff wellbeing and this underpins student wellbeing and mental health and they should be equally important.

Risk assessments; when change is implemented there can be a tendency not to think about the impact these have.  For example, understanding the implications on workload of moving to a blended delivery model.

It is also really important to think about the type of support that is needed for demands that people in higher education face.  Education Support has recently commissioned research on support available as we believe organisations should have a systemic and multi-level approach to looking after the wellbeing of their staff.  On the one hand there are the structural interventions where areas of pressure are identified and measures are put in place to counter these.  Individual skills are also needed to be as resilient as we can, but this will be challenging if the organisation itself is not supportive.  The research will be looking at the most appropriate sources of support to deliver this.

Given the situation we have faced over the past few months, and knowing that this will continue of the summer and into September, are there any issues you would see emerging that we should be mindful of?

One of the most important things is having a break, staff know they need to do this to remain effective, but of course it is very difficult to get away.  There are some examples of good practice in some institutions where staff have been given some extra days off in recognition of their effort to support students, however this is challenging when workloads are so high that people are working anyway.  Organisations need to understand the work pressures people are under, and ensure they are able to take a break.

It isn’t necessarily about doing anything particularly elaborate, more about taking the time and consideration to ensure people are treated well with regard to their wellbeing, safety and health.

People need to be seen as individuals with individual needs, and that those needs may change over the coming months. This will be time consuming for managers but is essential; for managers to think about individuals but also for organisations to think about how to support managers.  Managers are often forgotten in these conversations, there is a lot of guidance about how to do this but an important competency is the ability to prioritise your own needs as well.

The forthcoming research on staff wellbeing support in higher education being led by Professor Gail Kinman will be published later this year.

How we can help 

Teachers and education staff, in schools, colleges and universities, who are feeling stressed or anxious during these uncertain times can get confidential emotional support from our free and confidential helpline: 08000 562561.

What can you do?

If you’re in a position to help others in these extraordinary times, please consider making a donation so that we can continue to answer the increasing number of desperate calls and grants applications we are receiving. Thank you so much.