Looking after the mental health and wellbeing of colleagues (as well as students)

I’ve written before about topics on or related to mental health and wellbeing, including my personal journey written here. It’s great to see that there is no slackening of interest.  Progress is being made but, as is also all too clear, there remains much more than needs to be done – both in and outside of the HE sector.

Hip replacement surgery for me earlier this year meant an enforced break from work (and commuting).  It took a few weeks for me to appreciate the hip was indeed healing, and there were a couple of times when I was stuck in the house during the day on my own and felt extremely lonely.

In those immediate post-surgery weeks I was well doped up on painkillers but soon I’d had enough of daytime TV and trashy novels and magazines. It was a big moment when, approaching the 3 week mark, I just about managed to walk (with sticks and a lot of grimacing) a mile to a café (which became almost a lifeline for a while).  This made me realise how much loneliness and lack of mobility can affect people. I thought in particular about people of any age stuck at home or near to it, elderly and vulnerable people who may not have family or friends around them, and the likes of students who might feel isolated and/or not confident to reach out.  Fortunately for me after about 5 weeks the recovery really started to take off and life began to return to ‘normal’ – or better because I wasn’t being dragged down daily (and nightly) by pain as I had been for 18 months or so pre-surgery.

I now have a sharper insight into impact of living with chronic pain (especially for those unable to look towards a potential cure).  I hadn’t appreciated how constant pain had laid a cloud around me for around 18 months.  For me painkillers hadn’t cut it – unless I resorted occasionally to the really powerful ones that came with other side effects.  I lived with it as there wasn’t a choice. Now I realise I am very lucky to be pain-free – and to feel more like me than I have in years.

These experiences reinforced to me that for many managing their mental health and wellbeing is indeed a lifelong and evolving journey, and one that for some starts well before the age of 18.  In the HE sector much of the focus – especially from the likes of OfS – has understandably been on students but this is not a one-strand issue.  These are fast-moving and frequently testing times for the sector and people who work in it, as well as for students.  Even without considering the impact of the General Election outcome and Brexit (or no Brexit) this isn’t going to change any time soon.  The latest Higher Education and Research Act, bringing with it the advent of the Office for Students and regulation, ushered in a new (and different) era but other factors are in the mix as well including looming issues such as digitalisation and AI. Meantime we also hear that large deficits are being reported in a number of HE institutions.  Finally, in recent years, and in a change to how it was before, the media has been largely negative towards universities. Nationally, and locally, the public perception is often cool, and that applies to many politicians too.

HEIs in London and outside are having to adapt to these challenges and new levels of scrutiny.  Restructuring is a term many colleagues are very familiar with.  Staff in universities (not only but including academics) are under considerable pressure themselves, at a time when there are clear and growing expectations that they must be on the front foot when it comes to supporting students.  That’s not easy if someone is worried about restructuring let alone possible redundancy, whether or not their contract is to be renewed, or what the latest REF/TEF/QAA/league tables or NSS feedback might be saying. Throw in one or two other factors – like juggling caring or other responsibilities alongside work, financial worries, an upset at home, or personal medical or mental health difficulties – then realistically how can anyone be as good in supporting students as they might want to be? Or that the OfS and indeed society as a whole expects them to be?

For me it was many years before I felt I could talk with anyone at work about the depression I suffered from time to time since my early twenties (I count myself fortunate, incidentally), I documented it on my blog in 2017 here.  Even fairly recently it would not have seemed a good idea to tell the boss privately, let alone be open about it. I have come to realise that being open is very important. 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health difficulty at least once in their lives (and that is just looking at reported numbers).  It can and does happen to anyone irrespective of age, background, culture, wealth etc. Suffering bouts of depression as I have, for example, does not mean someone should have limited aspirations.  It is possible to do well rather just survive and all employers can play a role to enable this in their workforces.

I have said before that I would like to see is current or recently retired Vice Chancellors or sector leaders speak out about a mental health challenge they have lived with themselves, or that affected someone close to them and helped stimulate an appreciation of challenges people can face every day.  Letting our colleagues know they are not alone, and that it is possible to navigate a positive way forward is so important no matter what organisation someone might work in.

In 2020 London Higher will be running a pilot ‘This is Me’ campaign for colleagues in London HEIs.  Modelled on a successful initiative that has been running for some time within one of our corporate partners, Barclays, we will endeavour to help HEIs build an easy and inexpensive way of helping colleagues at any level feel that they are not alone, that support is available and that they can be successful in the workplace.  Barclays explain that ‘This is Me’ is intended to  ‘..challenge the stigma around mental health at work and aims to break the culture of silence by supporting people to tell their own stories.’  It is absolutely not a panacea, and will not work everywhere (or for everyone), but if it helps even a few on their own journeys then it will be worthwhile.

In the New Year London Higher will first offer to work with a small number of London HEIs to trial ‘This is Me’.  I plan to be involved in this myself in the hope of passing on something that others might find helpful. We would then like to extend the initiative in these HEIs and also to see it rolled out more broadly across London, and then nationally. Watch the space for more information.

‘This is Me’ is only one part of the work London Higher is doing on mental health and wellbeing. We lead an active London Health and Wellbeing Network, and will soon be launching a new referrals pathways project. The latter will involve a big partner group of HEIs and also has support from our partners at Jisc. This project will benefit students across London.  From 02-06 March 2020 we will also be promoting the first ‘London Wellbeing Week’.  There will be regular updates on all of these and you can find information here.

You can read more about Barclays’ own approach to This is Me here.

The following HEPI blog written by Hannah Borkin, Advance HE, is an insightful piece.