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Mental Wellbeing and Staff in HE Symposium: a post-event summary

05 Mar 2021 | Zoë Allman Zoë Allman, Associate Dean (Academic), De Montfort University shares her reflections of Advance HE's recent and first ever symposium looking at the wellbeing of staff in higher education

Advance HE recently held its first ever symposium looking at the wellbeing of staff in higher education. Having been invited to provide the opening keynote and take notes throughout the day I'm sharing these reflections:   

The symposium proved to be a day full of information, concepts, ideas, and calls for action. Interjecting questions between the presentations responded to the formal contributions and drew forth a greater dialogue in the Chat which never flagged despite it being a long and full day. The variety of speakers was excellent, with something to take and consider from each presentation.    

Following a warm welcome and introductions from Joan O' Mahony, Senior Adviser (Learning and Teaching) at Advance HE, the event started with two keynote presentations: Mental wellbeing, Embedding for all from Zoë Allman at De Montfort University, followed by Lawrie Phipps, Senior Research Lead at Jisc, who introduced Social Connectivity in a time of emergency. Lawrie and Zoë set the scene from different directions. Zoë, recognising the sector focus to date on embedding mental wellbeing for students, highlighted the need for passion and compassion, adaptation and resilience, genuine and authentic approaches to ensure embedded mental wellbeing for all. Lawrie presented the findings of a recent research study that highlighted the need for social connection, and how this had been disrupted and interrupted by the pandemic. Having interviewed respondents since the start of the pandemic it was clear there was a need for group interests and meaningful activities, a wider culture of caring and trust, and a call to manage expectations aligned with widening team communications. 

After the introductory keynotes, the symposium turned to the first session of the day which asked ‘How can our institutions support staff wellbeing?’ 

Building a Supportive Institution by Charlotte Williams from Tavistock Consulting.

Charlotte recognised the need for time to think about work-cultures and what we want to do about them; her presentation emphasised the point that well-structured environments are known to contribute positively to staff wellbeing. There were links between this talk and the opening keynote, noting the similar stresses on students and staff, and the opportunities to respond to these in similar ways, with an institution-wide approach.   

A connected approach to supporting colleagues at University College Cork by Dr Anne Gannon at University College Cork.

Based on the challenges of online working faced by colleagues at University College Cork (UCC), this case study shared examples including the UCC Resource Tree that signposts to both internal and external support opportunities, and the range of wellbeing support available for colleagues, including the ‘TAKE 60 Minutes’ wellbeing workshops, and approaches to constricting or managing email sending. Delegates throughout the day referenced the UCC Resource Tree, citing it as an example of good practice; and a model of good, clear communications 

Measuring Portsmouth University staff wellbeing within a framework for evaluation and support from Dr Denise Meyer, Melita Sidiropoulou, Daphne Kaklamanou, Zarah Vernham and Laura Hyman, a team based at the University of Portsmouth.

The final presentation in this session introduced by Denise presented a collaborative framework, and started by picking up on the context for the project from the UUK ‘Stepchange: Mentally Health Universities’ and ‘The University Mental Health Charter’.  The University of Portsmouth has taken a university-wide approach, entitled ‘Learning (and Teaching) Well’, focused on skill development and resilience approaches in relation to learning and teaching activities. Findings from a recent study on measuring staff and student wellbeing were included, the survey acting as an intervention in itself and recognising the changing external circumstances. 

Session two of the symposium posed the question ‘Community and connection: how can we work together, and why?’ 

Developing Teams as a Secure Base was presented by Dr Laura Biggart from the University of East Anglia. 

Laura presented the work of a ESRC study focused on connecting emotional lives at work in relation to our everyday thoughts and feelings, seeking to ensure emotionally safe work spaces. Safe base relations provide psychological reassurance and affirmation when we are experiencing stress or challenge, and the focus today was on the team as a secure base. There was a focus on availability, acceptance, and acknowledgement, all very applicable to higher education at present. 

(Re)Connecting the disconnection: A case study of how Communities of Practice (CoPs) supports teaching practices by Sam Willis, Curtin University, Louise Reynolds and Kylie Gumbleton, Charles Sturt University. 

Closely linked to the second keynote, the ‘Community of Practice’ concept (Wenger, 2011) was introduced and discussed, a concept underpinned by the quality of social connections. There was a need to establish communities of practice across a regional campus with multiple sites, particularly as delivery moved fully online in 2020.  A key focus was on bringing people together to share ideas, understanding and thoughts, aiming for regular activity to maintain and support engagement within the highly valued communities of practice. 

Sticky objects and HE teacher well-being: views on the positive from the UK and Saudi Arabia university contexts was presented by Dr Sian Etherington, University of Salford and Dr Judith Hanks, University of Leeds. 

This British Council funded research project worked with teachers of English for Academic Purposes in universities in Saudi Arabia and the UK; teachers were invited to reflect on their own context and develop their own practice and wellbeing, particularly through photographing what individual’s perceived to be their ‘sticky objects’. ‘Sticky objects’ related to Benesch’s (2012 and 2017) work around ‘Sticky objects in ELT’ with examples of mobile devices used in the classroom. A range of examples from the project were presented, with delegates invited to re-consider barriers to wellbeing. 

Dr Julie Pearson and Jennifer Murray from St Mary's University concluded the session with a presentation on Living the Value of Care in a Socially Distanced Learning Community. 

There is a need for a focus on the value of care, not just something to speak about (‘care of’ or ‘care for’) but actually grounding care at the forefront of open, realistic, natural practices that are care-full. Within the distanced learning community in a PGCert programme there was an awareness that we were all experiencing change in response to Covid-19 and we are all needing to embrace new learning. To demonstrate care, there is a need to understand our position as academics, to recognise the place of care, to work effectively as a team, and to share and co-create possibilities.   

The symposium’s session three posed the question ‘What develops individual wellbeing?’ 

This part of the day welcomed three presentations with a focus on the individual role in the development of mental wellbeing. 

Creating time and space for new academics by embedding coaching skills in their accreditation programme was presented by Sarah Wolfenden of Brunel University London.

This presentation detailed the Academic Professional Programme at Brunel, with a view on coaching to improve performance and wellbeing, for an individual or group.  Coaching can be a method for enabling staff to realise their potential, encouraging colleagues to question and find their own answers.  This led effectively into the following presentation which also drew upon examples from coaching experiences. 

Supporting Research Students During COVID-19: Sharing Good Practice from Essex was introduced by Anne Kavanagh, Katrine Sundsbo, Hannah Pyman and Dr Samer Gharib from the University of Essex.

With a focus on research students there was a call to set aside time to support the act of writing, but also importantly, in support of wellbeing.  There had been positive responses to virtual writing retreats, including extensions of the approach into other teams.  Aligned to the opening keynote the use of virtual writing retreats highlighted the need for focus on student and staff wellbeing.  Coaching was identified as vital tool for the support and development of early career researchers, aiming to combat the sense of being isolated and building resilience. 

To conclude the session Dr Abeer Hassan and Dr Dalia Allazzeh from the University of the West of Scotland presented, Examples of high impact individual wellbeing skills: e.g. time and stress management; emotional resilience

A passionate presentation included timely findings from research on a course undertaken during the global pandemic, exploring opportunities around seeking and using feedback to adapt activity as the academic session progresses. The focus was on kindness, empathy and positivity in the current environment, and learning from this. 

The session concluded with some thinking about the concept of ‘genuine’ peer support.  There was a recognition of the importance of listening and hearing, taking a non-judgemental approach, empathising and understanding the individual. There needs to be a willingness to share our own experiences, creating a safe environment in which to talk.  A quote from the last presenter’s abstract rounded off this session noting academic identities are shaped based on how we care for our students. 

In the final session of presentations for the day, session four focused on, ‘What is effective leadership for staff wellbeing?’.

Samantha Ross from the University of St Andrews started the session, Recognising Whole Units in Succession

This drew upon an example of succession change and impact when an immediate manager had been replaced.  It invited delegates to reflect on that experience, asking what was the experience like for you?  When the new appointment was made what was your response?  What does effective leadership for staff wellbeing look like during succession? 

Whilst there is lots of research about succession there is little about the impact and emotional feeling after the succession activity has occurred.  There are impacts on mental wellbeing for everyone involved in a succession event.  There are a range of relationships in the act of succession that can impact on the mental wellbeing of those involved and this needs greater thought and exploration in the sector. 

Compassionate HE management in a time of Covid was presented by Andrea Cameron from Abertay University. 

Compassion featured as a repeated theme throughout the day and was focused upon in this insightful session from the perspective of a university leader. There was a call for attention on compassionate leadership that creates conditions for the collective good, and this linked to the presenter’s own background and ethical underpinning from a Nursing approach, with the associated code of conducts that must be applied and adhered to. 

Compassionate management was required across higher education in response to Covid-19. There should be consideration of flexible working and timetabling of taught sessions, a review of priorities and workloads, greater use of FAQs, a reduction in electronic communication load, and key to all of this was communication and the opportunity to raise concerns. 

Leaders need to have insight, actively listen and be reflective to demonstrate compassionate management. 

Reflections of a Wellbeing Champion from Dr Meryl Dickinson at Brunel University London.

Responding to staff feedback Brunel University identified the need to introduce a Wellbeing Champion to ensure wellbeing featured in all staff meetings, to increase the visibility of and communications about wellbeing, and to provide updates on what support is available. The challenges of lockdown were revisited through a wellbeing lens, questioning which aspects of the activity undertaken in response to the pandemic were challenging mental wellbeing and which contributed to enhancing it. 

Linking to the second keynote there was recognition of the effects of social isolation.  There was a reflection on the impact of Wellbeing Champions for staff and whether a similar approach should be implemented for students. 

The event concluded with a round table discussion and Q&A opportunity under the heading ‘Mental Wellbeing & Staff in HE: dignity, autonomy, community, leadership’.  Chaired by Doug Parkin, Principal Adviser for Leadership and Management at Advance HE, the panel included Professor Anna Lise Gordon from St Mary's University, Aisha Richards from Shades of Noir, and Imogen Moore and Fabienne Vailes of the University of Bristol. 

Each member of the roundtable panel had been invited to open with a brief comment on an image, poem or artefact. Anna Lise Gordon gave a reading of The Margaret Atwood poem ‘The Moment’ picking up ideas of coaching and perceptions of experiences.  Imogen Moore shared an image of the film ‘Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga’ and her reflections on this around personal elements of mental wellbeing, as well as resilience, self-worth and belief. Aisha Richards contributed a picture of the cup/mug given to team members as a symbol of support in recognising and connecting; the cup of friendship, the cup being half-full or half-empty depending on view point, makes the symbol of the cup a powerful metaphor for wellbeing. 

There was a discussion about leadership styles to support wellbeing.  Leaders should be able to encourage and support individuals and teams.  Remembering that the acknowledgement of effort is incredibly positive, there is a power in the use of ‘thank you’.  We need leaders to be genuine and authentic, and there is scope for a positive management style in leadership which overlaps with the secure base model discussed during the day.  

We need to model self-care, talk openly about vulnerabilities, be honest and be human.  It is important to recognise in yourself and your team the need for self-care.  We should be authentic in our leadership approaches, be aware of those around us and be authentically interested in their welfare.  There is a role for genuine leadership and self-care but we also need to avoid the emphasis on the individual if the system surrounding them does not support a self-caring approach. 

The round table ended with a discussion on the priorities for change: if we could change one thing it would be to ensure that senior leaders truly understand the challenges on the ground, that they have opportunities to live the experiences of those they lead or manage, opportunities to stay grounded. There should be more time to focus on wellbeing matters, recognising the full-scale of poor wellbeing on all of us, on our work and our social communities. There was a call for more openness and honesty across the higher education sector, at present we have misalignments between expectations and activity that is having a negative impact on mental wellbeing.   

There was a final focus on authenticity and grounded leadership.  Do we see enough authentic modelling?  We do, but it’s important to recognise a two-way process, and the theme of connectivity came through again.  There was a call for greater vulnerability to be demonstrated in authentic leadership.  We must remember that almost everyone is a leader to somebody, so we should all aim to model what we want to see. 

Additional details of the day: programme and abstracts can be downloaded from the Advance HE Mental Wellbeing and Staff in HE symposium page

Zoë Allman is an academic leader driving change in embedding mental wellbeing in the curriculum, leading to enhanced experiences for students and colleagues. She is an Associate Dean (Academic) at De Montfort University, and as a National Teaching Fellow and Principal Fellow she is determined to support students and colleagues to achieve their individual and collective excellence.


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