Kindness is easily overlooked – but it's crucial now

As many of us feel our resilience eroding, focusing on the needs of others is ever more important, says Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay

Covid and mental health: Why small acts of kindness are crucial now

Last week, I had my spirits lifted by an elite sportsperson. It is a bit of a long story, but, essentially, I had taken part in an online rowing session the previous week and seriously struggled. I was kept going, however, by the medal-winning Olympian leading the session, and her ability to chat and motivate throughout, despite admitting that she herself felt a little nervous. Exhausted, but grateful, I thanked her for this on social media, and, lo and behold, she responded, and suggested I should say "hi" after the next session.

Despite being very conscious that I was taking up her time, and knowing that, frankly, I was unlikely to be at my intellectual best right after a workout with all my blood still in my head, I did so last week, and we had a brief chat about the perils of lockdown and how much we missed being out on the water with peers. (As if my rowing experience had anything at all in common with that of an Olympic medalist and world champion.)

This may be a slightly obscure story, but I promise you there is a point to it. She didn’t need to do that; I am sure her day was busy enough. But she took the time, and, simply because it was an entirely unexpected act of kindness, it carried me through the next few days.

Mental health: College support staff report a surge in anxiety

Leadership: Almost half of leaders 'experience distress regularly'

Background: 3,100 college staff put at risk of redundancy

The past few months, there is no denying it, have taken a significant toll on people’s mental health. Even for those of us lucky enough to enjoy jobs even from home, with safe, warm homes and families who are healthy, the social isolation, uncertainty and pressure of lockdown have eroded our resilience and become a heavy burden to carry.

Mental health: Rising levels of anxiety during Covid

For those in further education, although restrictions are starting to ease, that is now compounded by all the stresses of a further reopening of institutions, with everything that entails. More face-to-face teaching, regular Covid-tests – both for them and for students, concerns over assessment and the sustainability of their employer…the list is endless.

The impact of all of this is stark. A survey by support staff union Unison, published exclusively by Tes this week, shows that 85.7 per cent of support staff felt either “very anxious” or “somewhat anxious” during the current lockdown. This is a significant increase to pre-pandemic levels, when almost 60 per cent said they did not feel anxious at all. Similarly, report written by East Coast College principal Stuart Rimmer last month revealed that 45 per cent of college leaders had experienced “distress” three to five times a week. Among teaching staff, I doubt things are very different.

As some of you have already enjoyed the first few days of a well-earned Easter break and others are mere hours away from it, it is worth thinking about that context. It means, first and foremost, that it is absolutely crucial to get a bit of rest if that is at all possible. It also means, however, that the chances are those people we encounter at our work and in our lives generally are feeling just as fragile as I suspect many of you are.

This leads me back to my story from the start. Don’t get me wrong, colleges should get government funding to support staff and student mental health in numerous ways – from targeted counselling to providing the opportunity for regular breaks and exercise. But we also need to be mindful of each other.

The longer the pandemic goes on, the closer to an unnecessarily harsh response I find myself on a daily basis. Being kind is getting a little harder every day. So today, I have a challenge for you. No matter how difficult, that small act of kindness within our grasp may make someone else’s day just that little bit easier. So let’s see if we can’t all try a bit harder for those around us.

In the meantime, however, do get some rest – and, if that is your thing, enjoy an Easter chocolate egg or two this weekend. You’ve certainly earned it.

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Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay is head of FE at Tes

Find me on Twitter @JBelgutay

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