Since the start of the Covid pandemic in 2020, the waves of changes have been sweeping the shores of academia, demanding responses at all organisational levels. Universities have stood up to the challenge and proved that they can change and change fast, if required. Speedy transition into digital teaching and assessment, building successful virtual teams and collaborations across the country and beyond, running university operations remotely with little or no access to physical campuses at the start of the pandemic (Adams, 2020), (Moody & Loke, 2020); followed by creating socially distanced campuses and implementing hybrid working after restrictions were lifted, are all credit to the universities’ capacity for agility.
However, working in an environment with high levels of unpredictability and extreme pace of change, whilst trying to manage personal and organisational risks has come at a high cost for many colleagues and students in the sector. Implementing new strategies and new ways of working, covering for colleagues’ sickness absence, whilst trying to manage existing workloads, supporting staff and students experiencing severe mental health issues (Mind, 2021), grief and loss of loved ones and their transition through change, proved to be demanding for many.
The consequences range from emotional, mental and physical sickness (McKie, 2021) and it is clear that the impact of the pandemic reaches far beyond the physical virus. People feel exhausted, burned out, stressed and anxious. Staff and leaders are experiencing what psychologists term as compassion fatigue (Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, 2021), invested in supporting their teams and students but with minimal support for themselves, as their organisations are overstretched for resources and their line mangers are often not coping themselves.
With this comes the realisation that we cannot continue doing more with less for prolonged periods of time, without breaking individuals, organisations and ultimately without breaking the system. It is clear that something needs to be done to address this. The issue of organisational wellbeing has never been more important, and that is where we will direct our attention in the last theme of the Connect Benefit series for 2021-22.
In this theme we will explore the link between healthy and prosperous universities and the wellbeing of staff and students. We will ask what is our honest approach to organisational wellbeing in higher education? We have seen the rise of local and national initiatives to address it, for example “Stepchange: mentally healthy universities”, a refreshed strategic framework for a whole university approach to mental health and wellbeing at universities (Universities UK, 2021).
We want to examine to what extent the aspirations expressed in new policies translate into the lived experiences of those at the grass root level. We want to explore how we can create healthier and more compassionate universities as a result of the pandemic and the positive impact it may have on an inclusive and enabling culture. How perhaps do we need to change how we measure success in universities so that it reflects the human and wellbeing aspects in a practical way? Do we in our thinking give equal consideration to student and staff wellbeing?
In our explorations we will approach wellbeing in a holistic way, moving beyond the somewhat limited model of viewing it purely as physical and / or mental health phenomenon. We will also include emotional and spiritual (consciousness) aspects of wellbeing in our explorations. We will use the Holistic Organisational Development model (Bassa, 2017) as a basis for it.
We are aware that some colleagues in the sector may have a range of associations with some of the terms used in the thinking and the model(s) that we propose to explore throughout this theme, such as “spiritual”, “mindfulness”, “feelings” and “love”. We understand that everyone will have had varied experiences with those concepts. We want to take this opportunity to explore the use of such terms and potentially bring them back into the conversation and examine what their place is in HE’s wellbeing context. We are comfortable that they may provoke reactions and we see this as a positive thing in order to move this issue on and help our sector achieve what we know it is capable of.
Dr David Hawkins, PhD, renowned American psychiatrist and researcher, suggests that we manifest in our realities that which we hold in our minds as our thoughts, patterns of thinking and belief systems (Hawkins, 2015). We will refer to Hawkins’ Map of Consciousness (Hawkins, 2020) to argue that organisational wellbeing is a reflection of consciousness from which decisions are made and organisational culture emerges.
We will offer three perspectives on organisational wellbeing: strategic, managerial and operational.
- A strategic sandpit event on 5 May will discuss with members of university governing bodies and senior executives how wellbeing should be positioned within a wider university strategy and how the level of consciousness at which decisions are made strategically impacts the whole system: its culture and the wellbeing of those operating in it.
- We will reflect on what managers and institutional change-makers need to consider when implementing university wellbeing strategies. How can managers and leaders work more closely with executive teams to ensure that wellbeing is reflected in leadership practices, organisational culture, change and crisis management, employee policies and work allocation models? We will share good practice from the sector.
- We will also discuss with students and colleagues working with students (lecturers, learning and teaching coordinators, student services) how organisational wellbeing should be approached at universities to ensure student success.
- Finally, for individuals at all organisational levels, we will offer an “Organisational Wellbeing Everyday Ways of Working” series. This will consist of recordings including reflections on shifting patterns of thinking, perceptions and actions to enhance personal wellbeing at work and to create more wellbeing in universities. Those reflections will be coupled with a suggestion for practical application. Those taking part, will have an opportunity to participate in an online reflective session at the end of the programme to share their learning from implementing new approaches and enhance future practice. This series will be based on a wide body of work, including Presencing Institute (Scharmer, 2016), mindfulness and compassion (Gilbert & Choden, 2015), (Choden & Regan-Addis, 2018) and the development of human consciousness (Hawkins, 2014).
Transitioning as the higher education sector into the “new unknown”, we have a real opportunity for a “shift in consciousness” (Macy & Brown, 2020) to create more compassionate institutions and a kinder society as a whole. This member benefit theme aspires to contribute to this opportunity and we hope that you will join us on this journey.
Barbara Bassa is a Senior Leadership Development Adviser at Advance HE. She is an accredited Fierce Conversations® facilitator and a Senior Fellow.
Barbara holds an MSc in Organisational Development from Sheffield Business School, MSc in Business, postgraduate diplomas in Social Communication and Human Resource Management.
Barbara has worked extensively in the higher education sector, particularly with senior leaders and executive teams facilitating programmes aimed at developing organisational effectiveness and leadership behaviours. She has also worked with leaders and executive teams in the NHS, government bodies, housing associations, pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies, manufacturing, banking, insurance, aviation and IT sectors, in the UK and internationally.
Connect Benefit Series – Organisational Wellbeing
This project runs from May to July with outputs including a Tweetchat, a sandpit event for senior leaders, a series of recorded resources and a reflective webinar. Find out more about the outputs here.
More information on the 2021-22 Connect Benefit Series projects can be found here
Adams, R., 2020. UK universities switching to online lectures and exams, UK: Guardian.
Bassa, B., 2017. Holistic Organisational Development. Sheffield, European Mentoring and Coaching Council.
Choden & Regan-Addis, H., 2018. Mindfulness Based Living Course, UK: O-Books.
Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, 2021. Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project. [Online]
Available at: http://compassionfatigue.org/index.html
Gilbert, P. & Choden, 2015. Mindful Compassion, UK: Robinson.
Hawkins, D., 2015. Healing and Recovery. London: Hay House.
Hawkins, D., 2020. The Map of Consciousness Explained: A Proven Energy Scale to Actualize Your Ultimate Potential. London: Hay House.
Hawkins, D. R., 2014. Power vs. Force: The Hidden Determinants of Human Behaviour, UK: Hay House.
Macy, J. & Brown, M., 2020. Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to The Work that Reconnects. Kindle Edition ed., Society Publishers.
McKie, A., 2021. Burned-out university staff fear repercussions if they seek help. [Online]
Available at: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/burned-out-university-staff-fear-repercussions-if-they-seek-help
Mind, 2021. Coronavirus: The Consequences for Mental Health, Mind.
Moody, J. & Loke, G., 2020. Safe(r) for staff? Equality implications for ‘reopening’ HE campuses in the Covid era. [Online] Available at: https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/safer-staff-equality-implications-reopening-he-campuses-covid-era
Scharmer, O., 2016. Theory U. Leading from the Future as It Emerges. 2nd ed. Oakland, USA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Universities UK, 2021. Stepchange: Mentally Healthy Universities. [Online]
Available at: https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/sites/default/files/field/downloads/2021-07/uuk-stepchange-mhu.pdf