Any workplace can be stressful at times. But it's the way employers handle stress among staff that can either foster happy and successful workers or a constant pattern of absenteeism, sickness and employee turnover. Read on . . .
Rewarding, people-facing careers in sectors such as healthcare, hospitality and education will, of course, bring their own pressures. Yet in the flexible, fast moving environment of FE colleges, managers’ increasing awareness of the dangers of stressed-out staff - intensified by covid restrictions - and their consequent introduction of support measures should reassure jobseekers that they can keep work-life balance under control.
To underline how seriously colleges are now treating stress, the Association of College’s (AoC’s) survey on stress in the workplace last November revealed some revealing stats. 70% of respondents regularly collected data on their staff’s mental health while 67% ran an annual wellbeing survey.
All colleges had set up structures to support the mental health and wellbeing of all staff (up from 92% in the previous survey in 2016); 81% ran an employee assistance programme, while 62% offered counselling and support services. Significantly, 65% of respondents had seen a growth in staff numbers using these services in the past six months, mainly due to employees’ worries over a return to work, recurring existing mental health conditions and workload (66%). Some 85% ran staff wellbeing sessions, while 90% focused on physical activity and dealing with stress. Some respondents had also set up specialist groups to support the mental health of specific populations including autism and menopause. The covid effect itself had caused increased referrals for support among 83% of colleges since last September.
Richard Caulfield, mental health and wellbeing lead at the AoC, commends a series of AoC webinars on mental health aimed at FE staff and full of practical advice. “My general feeling is that all colleges are doing their best with staff,” he says. “For instance, in one recent webinar, East Coast College principal Stuart Rimmer introduced the idea of all staff setting themselves a personal anti-stress, well-being target: go for walk every weekend; run a marathon; leave work early one night a week to pick up your children from school . . .
“It’s a nice way of embedding that sort of thinking into staff,” says Caulfield. “In fact, the AoC strongly recommends mental health be considered when making all policy decisions - what, for instance, is the mental health/stress impact of bringing forward exam results day and dragging staff back into college during their summer break to manage results and recruitment? Or the effect of setting up functional skills students to take exams, albeit online from home this year, while just allocating assessed grades to English and maths GCSE resit students.
“Mental health has been on our agenda for a long time but only seems to become a major issue when the government wants it to be - eg when justifying it as a reason why schools should be fully opened up now?
“I defy anyone to say their mental health has not been impacted at some time during the covid lockdown … the bottom line is how can we get the right support to the right people at the right time and place?”
As one of several colleges adopting effective stress reduction measures which we’re looking at this week and next, Kendal College stands out as the 2019 winner of FE Week’s NICDEX college league table. Under Kelvin Nash, who became principal three years ago, the college has seen a massive reduction in stress levels. “When I started, we looked at what was and wasn’t working, put ‘triangulation’ in place between HR, quality and professional development, and management, and positioned the lecturers and other staff at the centre of the triangle. So now every time we make a decision in these areas we look at how it could affect our workforce.
“Staff started really buying in to the idea; we’ve taken away as much ‘garbage’ as possible from job roles and responsibilities and where gaps exist, we’ve put in resources to remove some of the pressure (eg spread the load in marking if a teacher gets swamped).
“As the principal, I’ve made myself very accessible to all staff and have helped bring some fun back into college life; we now, for instance, put on a year-end barbecue and Christmas celebrations. More importantly, we’ve
reintroduced celebration events such as annual staff awards that are presented in front of the whole college and are based on peer nominations - it’s really important to get peer recognition of your own work on a daily basis.”
And it can also be a game-changer for those who dont get an award. One staffer admitted: “Even though I didn’t actually win an award I read several really nice things written about me in the norminations and that certainly increased my confidence.”
In addition, the college has opened up the first 30 minutes of its leadership team meetings so staff can drop in and ask questions.”When we’ve made a decision, we’ll always make staff aware of how and why it’s happened,” says Kelvin.
According to one staffer, before Kelvin’s arrival the senior management team usually only communicated when there was a problem but the new principal made it clear he was bringing in a real cultural change and that people no longer needed be worried about saying things or being left in the dark. “Staff work now far more flexibly and are free to organise their timetables - some will now leave at 3pm to pick up children from school - and this approach has helped put paid to clock watching,” says Kelvin.
“We’ve also taken away blame culture. We all make mistakes. If I make one I’ll admit it openly and say I’ve got this wrong or I’m not sure about that. People recognise it’s okay to do something a bit different or out of the ordinary. For instance, we closed a week earlier than other colleges in the first lockdown as we could see how the virus was affecting staff and students. We took away the stress of moving from class to class, allowed staff to take home their office chairs (!), and set up online tea and chat groups at 5pm on a Friday to get together and talk about how the week had gone.”
Almost overnight, staff satisfaction levels increased radically. A comparison at the college between staff satisfaction surveys in 2018 and 2020 says it all: Is communication effective? In 2018 40% agreed, in 2020 79%. Do I feel valued in the organisation? (2018 68%; 2020 85%). Are staff being consulted and considered? (2018 55%, 2020 89%). Am I proud to be a member of the college staff (not asked in 2018 but in 2020 93% said yes).
A final two words on stress reduction come from a college leader who during lockdown has been sending out a weekly - sometimes daily - newsletter to staff to raise sagging spirits. Somewhere within every post, he always emphasises the need to think about one’s fellow peers and that everyone can get stressed in different ways. “BE KIND”, he writes - in capitals!