Last week plumbing lecturer Paul Wakelin revealed how his college has helped pull him back from the brink of despair brought on by an extreme case of accumulated stress. This week, we look at two forward-thinking colleges, East Coast (Paul’s college) and South Gloucester and Stroud, that are using the sort of tried and tested anti-stress measures that job interview candidates and new teachers should hope to see in some form at any college they apply to.
East Coast College didn’t wait to make big changes when the first Covid lockdown was announced, says its principal, Stuart Rimmer. “In the very first week we checked that every staff member had a ‘swim-buddy’ - another staff member they could talk to confidentially about any problem.”
Within the first two weeks of lockdown a flurry of people reported they could not cope with home-working, citing a range of reasons, including the added responsibility of homeschooling or having to share one laptop between a whole family.
“We ensured managers checked in with people at home coping with covid. We also brought in flexible working hours, particularly for staff with children, who told us they could only work best from, say, 7pm, onwards,” says Stuart. “We reduced some employees’ hours, allowed people time out and invited everyone to join a weekly zoom call from the principal’s office. We’d become aware that people would otherwise start rapidly disconnecting.” Fortunately, East Coast’s system worked.
Online social activities put on during lockdown included virtual running clubs, book clubs (meetings are still happening) and other activities to enable staff to connect. There was even bingo - some critics said the college would look daft if just 20 people turned up but 300 logged in - half the workforce!
Lack of personal contact has been one source of stress; the extra workload caused by covid is another. Producing teacher-assessed grades has piled up extra work that has spilled over into teachers’ downtime when they are normally on leave and taking rest. “What carried this last academic year was the whole staff cohort which had not had a proper rest for the past 18 months,” says Stuart. “Even during this July and August, plumbing and engineering staff were still teaching.”
Add in the unpredictable nature of covid and it makes stress management that much more vital. “Only recently a Public Health England mandate gave our staff just one day’s notice to move from not wearing masks to wearing them again. We’ve had to carry staff who have had no real rest for the last couple of years.”
In non-covid times, first year teachers have always faced a steep learning curve which will often be discussed at interview stage. The covid factor and online learning only underlines the importance of a college asking about what sort of self-care package new teachers plan to rely on when life gets tough. “I’d ask them if they were talking to people openly and transparently - how did they, say, talk to their line manager?” says Stuart. “They’re surrounded by people who have all gone through it so we ensure older hands mentor the younger ones.”
Colleges have a duty to care for their staff but individuals also need to look after themselves. “I’d ask a colleague who is struggling with stress what sort of coping strategies they follow around sleep, diet, and when their working day at home starts and stops? What are they doing outside college that will help them manage? If they have a plan, can they describe it to me?”
Stuart encourages all staff to be open and transparent. “I tell them: ‘If I can trust you and you me, we can make a very quick adjustment.’” So he might suggest a stressed out colleague might consider withdrawing from a particular meeting, or not addressing the college governors as scheduled. “It’s about professional dialogue - the more dialogue we get, the more successful we are in life.”
In fact, dialogue has been a key part of Stuart’s support for plumbing lecturer Paul Wakelin; they have had a couple of one-to-one ‘tea and chat’ sessions over the past few months. At the other extreme, Stuart has organised 20 line managers to join him in a zoom call and welcomed any other staff members to join in, regardless of their position in college.
“We had a big conversation about mental health - it was about just connecting human beings and encouraging an open transparency that helps people move things along.”
Staff openness and transparency are also key aims at South Gloucestershire and Stroud College (SGS) in its own multi-pronged approach to reducing stress.
Staff can often feel ashamed and vulnerable if they say they are not coping, says Moira Foster-Fitzgerald, chief group services officer and safeguarding lead. To give staff confidence when they admit to stress - a condition normally caused by a mix of problems at work, home and elsewhere - SGS offers a wide range of approaches to cater for all needs.
For instance, the college uses Connect 5 mental health training to identify and deal with stress and build up resilience; it also uses ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) to help employees focus on the present and move on from overwhelming, difficult emotions. It helps fund a diploma counselling course for staff and a masters in mental health as part of CPD training and continues to run a longstanding staff counselling service via a mix of in-person and online sessions. One of the beauties of online counselling is the facility allowing staff to click ‘leave’ and make a quick exit if they ever feel vulnerable in a conversation; it’s not something so easily done when both parties are physically in the same room.
Forward thinking - a premonition maybe - saw SGS introduce the use of Microsoft Teams pre-lockdown and get an early warning of how vulnerable staff tutors felt when they started receiving at home all sorts of cries for help from their students out of college hours.
“We found our students were deluging their tutors with Teams messages and saying things like ‘I have nothing to live for’ or ‘This has happened’,” says Moira. “It could be massively frightening and stressful for our staff who felt they couldn’t turn off - they’d ring me late at night and say: ‘I’m really worried about this person, I can’t sleep - what can I do?’
“Part of our role with young people is helping them know how to do stuff for themselves. Many in the teaching professions feel responsible for students and colleagues and this is a big source of stress. It’s easy to fall into this type of extra support role if you are a lecturer or an HR or wellbeing team member. It’s really down to the emergency services, but it’s very hard to simply ignore messages like that.”
The solution proved straightforward, says Moira. “Many staff access their college emails and Teams messages via their personal phone so we set up an IT system that allowed them to separate work and personal messages in their phone settings. They could then leave a voicemail saying: ‘In an emergency, please contact the Samaritans or the police - don’t wait for me to pick up your email while I am on holiday.’ The college wants to enable its students to find the right support and it is not always us.”
The college has also invested in Togetherall - an online subscription site that encourages any staff members - whether suffering mental health problems or not - to just express their feelings anonymously, be open about themselves, work through any personal problems and maybe take part in a related discussion with other anonymous participants.
The site’s self-assessment tools enable users to determine if they should be worried about any compulsive behaviours across a range of different subjects such as substance abuse, eating etc. Staff may also log on to the college’s employee self-service portal and access an occupational health provider as an alternative support source.
Inclusion, too, is high on the college agenda. “One thing that really stresses people out is when they don’t feel seen or can’t be who they are because they’re trying to be something they think they should be,” says Moira.
The college has worked with Conflict Masters, an external specialist company in training and mediating. It uses professional actors informed confidentially by college staff to simulate on video a range of made-up scenarios acted out in the college staffroom. They show people feeling they don’t belong and include scenes that lack inclusiveness such as people laughing at foreign-sounding names, and conversations about hearing impediments, ageism and the transgender issue. The different scenes were then discussed over zoom.
“It was cringing stuff, but very powerful, thought-provoking and moving,” says Moira. “If you don’t feel accepted for who you are, that is a big source of stress to some people who then try to pretend they are something they are not. We’re still on a journey - but it spoke to a lot of things for a lot of people.
For Moira, the take-home message was as follows: “This is who we aspire to be and, if you want to work here, this is what our expectations of you are.”