BUILDING THE case to prove that people working in the FE sector are under increased and unsustainable pressure is not a difficult thing to do.
According to the Health and Safety Executive, stress cost the economy nearly 10 million working days last year; 43 per cent of all sick days were attributed to stress. Last year, a University and College Union survey found that nine out of 10 members thought their jobs were stressful. The biggest rise in stress levels was linked to “change fatigue”, with more people working beyond their official hours and poor work-life balance also reported.
In my college, which is involved in a merger, we have to acknowledge that there are high levels of pressure and insecurity. In my view, it is because of situations like these that now is the time to redouble our efforts to protect staff wellbeing. We must enable honest conversations about what is possible, realistic and even desirable, and support colleagues within a values-based framework.
So what is wellbeing? It’s about allowing individuals to thrive and develop. This may link to positive emotions like happiness but also to a sense of purpose, positive relationships and developing our own potential, and having some control over our own lives.
To obtain personal wellbeing requires us to not be simply passengers on our own life journey (including work) but to proactively influence outcomes.
Developing a prescription for how we can improve conditions for our teams, therefore, becomes more challenging. Similarly, how we approach who is responsible for improving wellbeing in the workplace is worthy of debate. Does this role rest with a paternalistic institution or with the individual themselves? The answer is clearly both.
There is a growing recognition that it makes sense for the sector to influence staff wellbeing. The argument sits easily for three reasons. Firstly, there is evidence to suggest that happy staff are more productive and less susceptible to absence. When outcomes are paramount and money is tight, there is a case for greater organisational effectiveness and efficiency.
Secondly, there is a moral case to be answered. As caring, values-driven organisations, colleges must wish our staff to be fulfilled, not just at work, but in their wider lives.
Finally, improved staff wellbeing will inevitably lead to better staff recruitment and retention – which, in turn, is likely to lead to improved success for students.
At this junction, however, we must face the reality of working in FE in the 21st century. There are significant pressures, and this is not likely to change in the immediate future.
As Vanessa King, the author of 10 Keys to Happier Living, who has been working with our college, says: “Being happier is not about trying to experience pleasure all the time or avoiding unpleasant emotions. It’s about being realistic and making the most of the good times and finding ways to bounce back when things get hard.”
So what can the college do to improve staff wellbeing? And how can individuals take responsibility for their own wellbeing?
It is worth thinking about stress. Psychologists such as Gail Kinman have found that both “perceptions” of and the “fact” of stress have grown markedly.
Demands have increased, relationships have deteriorated and the ability to embrace change has reduced.
Often we talk about “stress” rather than “distress” and fail to recognise what endocrinologist Hans Selye described as “eustress” – or good stress.
Stress ‘can be good’
A dollop of good stress can prove to be motivating. It can alleviate boredom and combat under-stimulation. Good teaching contains an element of being out of the comfort zone. The key issues are the volumes of the stress and the amount time we are under stress for.
How can colleges support staff wellbeing? Research broadly rests in six areas of influence.
Staff are at their best when: they are well informed and have the resources they need; they have balanced workloads; they have a strong sense of individual purpose and clear-yet-challenging goals; they hold some control and influence over how work is done; and there are supportive work relationships in their teams. Research argues that experienced individuals will manage change.
At my college we have taken steps to provide better mental health support, resilience and wellbeing training. We now offer free access to new gym facilities and have more family-friendly policies.
We are looking hard at how we support people to be responsible and accountable for results, while ensuring that colleagues don’t feel threatened by a culture of constant evaluation.
There is more to be done both to better understand and differentiate between challenging pressures in the college (which can provide positive outcomes) and hindering pressures (which can bring distress and strain).
One area that still needs significantly more research in FE is the role of leaders. How can we reduce anxiety or unhappiness in leaders and also encourage them to set examples and lead from an authentic place? As an experienced leader in FE, I have derived huge personal development and balance from a better understanding of happiness, positive psychology and resilience.
I first encountered the research around a decade ago through being a leadership coach, but also as a manager – when I was too far along the “burn-out continuum” for my own welfare.
Becoming both engaged with and responsible for my own wellbeing at my place of work has been transformational.
It is time for colleges and individuals to proactively engage in the wellbeing debate.
There is an opportunity to combine new science with old wisdom to create workplaces within the sector that are kinder, more productive and, ultimately, happier.