It is nearly six years since the merger that created Edinburgh College, and it has not all been plain sailing since then. Following the merger of Stevenson, Jewel and Esk, and Telford colleges to form what is now one of the biggest FE institutions in the UK, the college underwent restructuring, with staff redundancies, and faced significant financial pressure from a multi-million-pound deficit. Like much of the sector in Scotland, it also endured strike action by staff, as well as the consequences of the reintroduction of national bargaining and the resulting increase in staff costs.
But, after years of upheaval, the college is now on the road to financial recovery, with a balanced budget expected this year. And, only a few weeks ago, Audit Scotland commended the institution for the progress that has been made through its recovery plan.
So for principal Annette Bruton, who is due to retire later this summer, the time has now come to focus on aspects of college life that had to be less of a focus in recent years. “Given the journey the college has been on, the timing seems right to come together to have a good think,” she tells Tes Scotland.
“Mergers are difficult in any organisation, and we have been through quite a difficult time as a college. Throughout the merger, one of the things we have not spent enough time looking at is the wellbeing of staff.” She adds that, with the help of the college’s students’ association, the college has had a focus on the wellbeing of students, but staff wellbeing has received less attention.
To rectify this, the college held an all-staff “Working well – putting wellbeing and positive mental health first” conference last week, bringing together keynote speakers, and allowing staff to try out a range of activities and attend workshops to help them support themselves and others.
Workshops and seminars explored issues such as the link between diet and wellbeing, and how smartphones can be used as “health coaches”, and there were introductions to choir singing, ballroom dancing and needle felting.
Staff heard keynote addresses from Carol Craig, chief executive of the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing, who highlighted the importance of finding ways to aid one’s wellbeing – including exercise and spending time in nature – and Jo Maher, principal and chief executive of Boston College in Lincolnshire and a registered practitioner psychologist with the Health and Care Professions Council, who emphasised the importance of identifying the factors that trigger stress.
With all staff members asked to offer suggestions as feedback after the event, the principal says these will be collected and a plan will be developed on how to implement some of those ideas to change the working lives of college lecturers, support staff and management.
“For the first time since merger, we have got an investment fund,” says Bruton. “Because we are getting a balanced budget for this year, we have got some money to invest and we need to do that usefully. We will come up with a whole range of things that do not cost any money, but there are also things we can invest in.”
This could include things like forming a staff choir, she says, or yoga classes for staff, as well as simply ensuring that staff are aware that they can take their breaks when it suits them to, for example, go for a walk.
Bruton says there were enormous differences between different areas of the college in terms of resilience. “We want to get a clear message out to staff that it is not only legitimate but also desirable to look after themselves and their colleagues,” she adds. “We want to look at what we need to do to become a really happy and resilient college. It is also an opportunity to open up a discussion on how much do people see their work as purposeful, how much control do they feel they have.”
She says she has already had some feedback from staff saying they love the fact that they are being asked to look after each other. “It is part of the ongoing story of creating a big family,” says Bruton. “Six years on from merger, we have to keep working at it – families need work.”