From education to employment

Little By Little, A Little Becomes A Lot

Dr Lou Mycroft is a nomadic educator, writer, and Thinking Environment facilitator.

Lou Mycroft riffs on the Stress Awareness Month hashtag #LittleByLittle, to explore new collective approaches to addressing personal and organisational accountability around ‘burnout culture’.

This year marks my fifteenth as a carer. As an adopted person, I’ve been privileged to have extra parents. I cared for two to their final breath and my adoptive mum, Little El, is a gloriously independent 94 partly because I make her life safe on a daily basis (she’s also awesome in herself). 

I’m not presenting any sort of tragic life story Olympics here – I would lose any race. To tell a story of my life as only graft and duty would miss the point of a joyful existence, a life which feels genuinely blessed by love. But it’s taken a lot of juggling over a lot of years and eventually (after damaging my health) I became very good at managing my own stress. And that’s why the strapline of this year’s Stress Awareness Month is so meaningful for me.

‘Little by Little, a Little Becomes a Lot’ carries the hashtag #LittleByLittle. I have found it to be true that small, consistent changes are the pathway out of pathological stress: the point at which stress is having a detrimental effect on your mental and/or physical health. And that matters to our sector. Because we know that in FE, burnout culture is real.

In a busy life, managing stress feels like just another thing to do. This is as true for organisations as it is for individuals. Organisational cultures can be healthy, pathological (leading to disease) and anywhere in between. FE is busy. I’ve written elsewhere how the compliance structures of FE create a culture of false urgency which would be laughed out of the Emergency Room. FE is not A+E (outside of an acute and serious safeguarding incident), yet we act as though it is. A year ago, FE News published my call to action which positioned the sector’s chronic issues with stress as a collective workplace issue. Where are we now and how can #LittleByLittle help us push further for change?

Research by Stephen Corbett and the team at The University of Portsmouth asked recently whether Covid had actually changed anything for workforce wellbeing in FE. The results were complex and what struck me about the team’s findings was an increased sense of isolation amongst staff, when compared to previous pre-Covid findings. Wellbeing is down and resilience is up – and that’s problematic in itself. We are more alone in coping with life’s challenges and we may have become more resilient but that essentially means we are absorbing more stress. 

Not good. And indicative, too, of what we know anecdotally – that investing in apps and workplace yoga sessions, though appreciated by some, doesn’t scratch the surface of the health crisis we are facing. We now know beyond a doubt that stress is not just about mental health. It’s a complex entanglement and while some stress is good (we’d all be bored otherwise), chronically high levels of stress impact almost all the systems of the body either directly or indirectly. No serious research disputes this now.

If our workforce is absorbing more and more stress through ‘improved’ resilience strategies, then we’ve got a ticking time bomb on our hands. And the only way to address it is through a very real and collective accountability. That means changing systems and culture at organisational, individual and sector levels. It means taking good intentions into sustainable change. And we won’t do that by writing another strategy. We’ll do it by changing what we do. 

Little by Little, a Little Becomes a Lot.

In FE, we talk about accountability when what we mean is compliance. Let’s stop doing that and let’s stop pretending that ‘resilience’ hasn’t reached its limits. That we, as a workforce, haven’t reached the limits of what we can endure.

Real accountability is a collective partnership between sector, organisation and individual. It requires resistance at all levels, best expressed by the philosopher Rosi Braidotti as, “I would prefer not to.”

“I would prefer not to take on those extra duties without giving something up.”

“I would prefer not to sanction a member of staff for taking a measured risk.”

“We would prefer not to knock ourselves out chasing Ofsted outstanding.” 

(Yes, I’m hearing this more and more. It’s a powerful form of resistance.)

This brilliant think piece by inclusion strategist Elise Ahenkorah introduced me to the concept of accountable spaces. Elise defines accountability as:

“…being responsible for yourself, your intentions, words, and actions. It means entering a space with good intentions, but understanding that aligning your intent with action is the true test of commitment.” 

Accountable spaces ensure that values don’t get forgotten as soon as the discussion starts. Accountable spaces have intentional action built in.

Accountable spaces which are constructed along the lines Elise suggests, or as Thinking Environments, or simply as respectful spaces where people listen, work at being succinct and don’t interrupt, allow for a breath, a pause, a moment to gather your thoughts and to maybe notice more clearly what’s going on. The impact of pause on stress hormone levels is well documented. If you want the science, check out Dr Amishi Jha’s ‘Peak Mind’ work; it’s compelling. Imagine if workplace cultures had more pause?

Everywhere I go, I hear that FE is ready to dial the pressure down. Burnout culture is beginning to look not only dangerous but ridiculous. Life really is too short to risk our health at work. But it’s not strategy that’s going to bring about this sea-change. It’s #LittleByLittle – individuals and organisations taking account of their actions, resisting (self and other) exploitation and making small, consistent changes:

  • building pause into meetings
  • resisting (“I would prefer not to.”)
  • speaking up when values are compromised
  • addressing stressful meetings culture
  • owning your conduct, clear-sightedly and without shame
  • not punishing mistakes
  • behaving ethically in private

It’s a stress revolution and it’s an ethical revolution too, a bringing together of what we say our organisations are about and what we actually do day-to-day. Everyone in FE wants this. We’re on the point of making it happen. And, believe me, a small step is all that’s needed, as long as we keep stepping forward – and not expecting miracles – every day.

By Lou Mycroft

Related Articles