If an FE lecturer ‘fails to prepare’ for a class or tutorial they should be ‘prepared to fail’ - it’s down to them, so the saying goes. But what if a competent, would-be candidate applies for a college job knowing they might at some time need mental health support? How do they reassure themselves that help is there without any need at interview to disclose the state of their own mental health?
Faye McGuinness, director of programmes at Education Support, the UK’s only charity dedicated to the mental health and wellbeing of those working in education, suggests candidates might “first look at a college’s website and expect to see statements of intent as part of a mental health policy. In recruitment information, they should expect colleges to state how they approach staff wellbeing. Then, if called for interview, they should ask what is the college’s wellbeing policy and how does it care for staff mental health? How does its management handle workload and work intensity levels?” Faye cannot stress enough the importance of checking out working conditions as early as possible before accepting any new post.
Given prevention is better than cure, how should newbies keep themselves mentally healthy? And are there warning signs to watch out for in fellow teachers or non-teaching staff?
“If you are comfortable sharing your wellbeing action plan with your line manger, it’s a great tool to start a conversation and ensure wellbeing is on your manager’s agenda. Having your own plan is a really important first step if you are happy to do that . . . it’s like drawing up a lesson plan.
“We all do things to make us well but they can fall by the wayside when we get really busy,” says Faye. “Set yourself one or two wellbeing non-negotiables - things you need to do to ensure you remain well. And then communicate all this to your colleagues - it’s very important they understand why you do these particular things.
“Of course, we’ve all been anxious through covid, and that’s a normal reaction. But if you start noticing symptoms, such as more regularly feeling stress and anxiety, an increased heart rate or feeling panicky, consider reaching out to colleagues and family or talking to your GP. You can visit the website of the mental health charity, Mind, to find out how different types of mental health problems present themselves.”
And what if you find yourself struggling in a new post? Individually, college staff can call the charity’s 24-hour confidential mental health line staffed by trained counsellors and also apply for the charity’s financial support grants.
At workplace level, Education Support helps employers constantly prioritise staff mental health and wellbeing; and at policy level, it backs wide-ranging research to drive improvements in teachers’ wellbeing, which includes a recent mental health survey of sixth-form college principals and work with the Education and Training Foundation to better understand how FE line managers can create a psychologically safe working environment. In addition, this April Education Support launched its Teacher Wellbeing Hub, funded by the Welsh government but listing mental health resources relevant to all UK educational settings.
Of course, Covid has only increased the pressure on staff mental health and encouraged a raft of new reports showing substantial progress - and the need for more - in the FE sector (see Resources below). In February, for instance, the Campaign for Learning published its report, Understanding and Overcoming a Mental Health Crisis in 2021, including sections on the mental health needs of post-16 staff focusing on employment contracts, work/life balance and stress-busting solutions in the workplace.
Last month, during Stress Awareness Month, we cited the AoC’s Mental Health and Colleges survey (published in January) showing how all colleges are now prioritising staff mental health and well-being to some degree.
Richard Caulfield, the Association of Colleges’ mental health and wellbeing lead, last year presented an AoC webinar on the mental health of staff working remotely, relating to the UK’s first covid lockdown. It comes packed with schemes adopted by FE colleges to maintain and improve staff wellbeing.
During our brief trawl of college mental health initiatives, Kelly Haddrell, head of HR at Abingdon and Witney College, explained her college’s proactive approach to promoting wellbeing. “We give our line managers as many prompts, templates and support mechanisms as possible. We give them a structure for one-to-one meetings and ensure they include a conversation about workload and wellbeing. It’s so easy just to ask questions like have you met this target, rather than how are you? One big survey finding was how much value people placed on the time line managers could give them to discuss their mental health and wellbeing. They just want to talk to someone honestly without jeopardising their job.
“We’ve adopted wellness action plans and encourage all staff - not just those who are appear vulnerable or are diagnosed with a condition - to fill out a plan.”
The college tweaks individuals’ working conditions so it might allow a staff member to start work say 30 minutes later than normal and so allow them to take their children to school. “Small things that seems to make such a big difference to people’s lives. It’s often about understanding how people prefer to work and how they’d like to be managed.”
Cost of living is another big issue for many staff. A look at absence records, particularly towards the end of the month when money can be short, sometimes reveals financial hardship - like not being able to afford petrol to get to work. “We can examine what that person can do working from home and still be effective.” Such an approach has seen absence figures fall significantly.
The college aims to support the whole person, so monthly emails are sent out to check in on staffers, reminding them of the employee assistance programme, college wellbeing champions and mental health first-aiders. It produces a wide range of non-work related Microsoft Teams meetings/online support groups on topics such as gardening, yoga, breast and testicular cancer and going through the menopause, even advice from an independent financial adviser.”
Meanwhile, at the Oxford-based education group Activate Learning, Louise Basu, head of people and change, says there’s been a surge in staff signing up to train as accredited mental health first-aiders. “We run a short course of guided online and home learning plus a final assessment, which equips staff to spot the signs and symptoms of mental ill-health. Every course we’ve run has been filled to capacity.”
The group is helping its college leaders understand their role in managing workplace wellbeing, as well as focusing on how individuals can help themselves. All staff can access the Everymind at Work app that provides 24/7 support for online training courses on mental health for staff and managers as well as managing stress in the workplace. It includes self-help techniques, educational resources, personal stories, and information on how to access support relating specifically to stress among other areas of wellness.
“We also encourage a healthy work life balance,” says Louise.”We promote and communicate the benefits of taking a break, particularly from back-to-back Microsoft Teams and Zoom meetings.”
Lastly, at Peterborough College, Laila Bentley, executive director student services and designated safeguarding lead, describes her institution’s holistic approach to mental health and wellbeing. “Before covid struck, we put on a range of events and support services such as Time to Care coffee and cake sessions to enable staff to get away from their desks to meet with colleagues. Other support included confidential counselling services, an employee assistance programme including access to occupational health, and help from our college chaplain.
“During lockdown we promoted safe working at home and regularly advised staff it’s ok to be away from their screens/desks at home and take regular breaks. We aim to safeguard the whole individual so, yes, we remind people to take walks and have even looked at ergonomics to show people how to sit at their home workstations.
“We promote our staff intranet and we hold virtual coffee sessions to enable people to touch base with each other. Coming out of lockdown we adopted masks very early on and even got commended by Public Health England for our maintenance of a safe environment for all!"
The college runs a wellbeing channel via its staff intranet, inviting staff to post up material. It’s been used, for instance, to promote World Sleep Day, healthy eating and links to external groups. “We try to raise awareness about what triggers stress and anxiety in our staff and then put measures in place to help staff and students self-manage or get help.”
Gathering and communicating more initiatives like those mentioned above is now the aim of Education Support. Since covid has kick-started more intensive research into mental health, the charity has started compiling a host of best practice examples of mental health care developed during the pandemic. The charity welcomes contributions from colleges which should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org, tel: 020 7697 2750, Education Support, 40A Drayton Park, London N5 1EW.
11 essential apps for teacher wellbeing - free, online resources promoting teacher wellbeing from the mental health charity, Mind, including: better sleep patterns, stress reduction (mindfulness/meditation techniques), work-life balance, physical fitness (workout programmes), time management at home/workplace, and general mental health advice.
College case studies on mental health and wellbeing (AoC) (to view, press download)
Poster on how to maintain welbeing (to view, press download)
Staff wellbeing planning pack for schools and colleges (to view, press download)
Draw up your own 'Wheel of life’ - how to create a simple DIY diagram on paper to help you gauge and improve wellbeing