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A new guide to supporting a better work-life balance in further education

A new guide to supporting a better work-life balance in further education

Life is getting harder in further education (FE) and it is having an impact on staff wellbeing, especially for those who are struggling alone. According to a report from University and College Union:

  • 67% of FE and education staff described how their stress levels at work had increased in the last year
  • 47% reported that they always go to work when they are unwell
  • 59% were not confident to advise their employers about high levels of work related stress and mental health issues.

Overwork has become the norm. Staff face impossible deadlines and are being forced to make impossible choices. Research from UCU shows that staff across the United Kingdom are doing the equivalent of at least two days unpaid work every week.

UK charity Education Support has created a resource to help colleges to focus on staff wellbeing and to create a healthy working culture. Helping staff balance work and life: a guide for managers and leaders examines the issues. It offers examples from colleges and provides tips on developing and maintaining beneficial working practices that will be easy to implement in most settings.

Signs of stress

Staff work long hours and carry a heavy admin burden. Many report they wake up feeling tired and find it hard to engage properly with colleagues, students and family. Some have given up on their social life during term time and take little pleasure in day to day activities.

Stress brings physical problems in its wake such as poor sleep, aches and pains. Our bodies feel under threat which can trigger fight or flight responses. This can make us tighten our muscles, causing tension headaches and can lead to conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and raised blood pressure.

Where signs are ignored or dismissed, we can experience burnout, stress, anxiety, depression, breakdown PTSD or trauma. So many staff leave the FE sector each year because of stress and this represents a serious loss of talent and expertise.  

Changing the narrative

Colleges might start by looking at their safeguarding procedures to ensure they have a systematic approach to mental health.

Does your workplace:

  • Conduct anonymous annual surveys of staff satisfaction?
  • Use surveys that offer consistency, anonymity and are valid and reliable?
  • Gather data about staff mental health?
  • Have a mental health policy written down and regularly reviewed?
  • Ensure that all staff act on the issues identified?
  • Look at the time spent on admin tasks?
  • Find and implement ways to make them less onerous?

Setting boundaries

Managers and leaders need to set an example. There is no point talking about healthy work environments if you are emailing colleagues at the weekend or coming in ‘to keep an eye on things’ when you should be on holiday. 

Many people find it hard to switch off at the end of the day and then feel guilty if they do! One useful exercise is to talk to staff about what they do between leaving work and getting home. For some, the routine of the journey home is enough to help them switch their thoughts away from work concerns. Others need some exercise to shake off the cobwebs, a walk with the dog, a trip to the gym or a run. Some – especially since the pandemic – like to have shower and change their clothes as soon as they get home, while planning and preparing an evening meal are rituals that mark the end of the working day.

Gathering examples and creating a word cloud can be a good way to spark discussions

Ten ways colleges can support their staff

  1. Appoint a staff welfare officer
  2. Survey staff about workload
  3. Set up a mentoring system for new staff
  4. Link up with a local occupational health organisation
  5. Provide a chill out room
  6. Run self-help groups on anxiety and other conditions
  7. Provide workshops on low self-esteem, low confidence and smoking cessation
  8. Offer free access to sports facilities and fitness suites
  9. Ask the staff what would help them
  10. Share content from Education Support’s site and learn about our Employee Assistance Programme

Staff need a forum where they can share their tips for maintaining mental wellness, set boundaries and ask for help without repercussions. In a Tackling Stress in the Workplace webinar, Shelley Asquith of the TUC calls for a more collaborative approach to mental health. She advocates: ‘bringing people together to change work so that it stops being a cause of stress and starts being a space where people can access the support that they need.’

Many of the problems in FE seem intractable but by discussing issues and strategies with colleagues, either by offering formal supervisions or in informal groups, we stand a better chance of arriving at solutions that work.

For more information and a guide to support and resources:

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