‘Let’s give staff wellbeing a healthier portion of our time and attention’

COVID-19 puts teachers under extra strain as they adapt to remote and online working. Their wellbeing should be a priority, says Scott Hibberson, subject specialist in digital practice at Jisc

If a member of teaching staff drew a pie chart representing time spent on different aspects of their job, what might feature and in what proportions? Learner interaction would constitute a healthy slice. Planning and preparation, while a significant portion for newbies, might get leaner with experience as confidence and resources grow. What about their own wellbeing? I dare say, for most, it’s a diet-sized sliver. Through the coronavirus crisis, this balance is changing.

An ill-defined time

We’re all spending more time indoors, online with less freedom and fewer choices. In addition to personal challenges, teachers and tutors are being asked to work in ways that may be new to them, and to quickly develop new skills, which certainly requires agility. Many are out of their comfort zone, and many are struggling.

In the online workshops I deliver around digital identity and wellbeing, staff tell me they need support, both in adjusting to their changing working environments, and in supporting students through the COVID-19 crisis. We’re in an ill-defined time. Staff are searching for guidance on what to focus on and what to deliver.

Work/life balance

When working from home, the line between personal and professional life often blurs – and that can cause anxiety. Contrary to online teaching, where the more it happens, the more confident staff become, wellbeing concerns can worsen over time. There’s a tipping point where keeping physically safe by staying indoors gives way to mental health issues.

What support can college and university leaders provide in this context? What practical things can they do? At Basingstoke College of Technology, very soon after closing its doors in response to COVID-19, the principal inspired staff by keeping in touch with live online videos. That wasn’t just a kindness, it also modelled behaviour. The videos weren’t professional or perfectly polished, and that sent an important message to staff who might have been wondering how they were going to be judged when delivering in this format to students.

Policy and process

I hope this time of instability can bring positive change and my impression is that, already, senior leaders certainly seem more alert to staff wellbeing. There’s no choice but to work remotely, and leaders are thinking about the impact, considering aspects such as how staff and students interact safely online.

But in this developing environment, where does responsibility for wellbeing start and stop? It’s often nuanced – so universities and colleges may seek to look again, making sure they have a policy in place, and that it has a digital aspect. Westminster College asks learners and staff to sign a student contract that clearly outlines expectations from learners’ and staff behaviour during home-learning, and states where to go for support. The University of Durham’s website has an area for staff with templates for wellness action plans based on the NHS’s 5 steps to mental wellbeing. That helps middle managers while showing all staff that their mental health and wellbeing is important.

 Digital skills

If staff aren’t confident with the tech they’re being asked to use in their day-to-day teaching, they’re left feeling vulnerable. Teachers, lecturers – people at the front of the classroom – are experts. Dropping them into an environment where it might be very obvious to all that they are not confident can cause great stress. But there are ways to work together to support staff wellbeing in this context. Those who aren’t comfortable delivering any face-to-face online lectures might instead provide high-quality materials learners can engage with interactively. Those who are keen to try live digital delivery but want to build confidence first may benefit from a ‘walled garden’ approach, where their institution creates a safe, private environment to develop skills.

Have your cake and eat it

The COVID-19 crisis is putting a strain on many people’s mental health and wellbeing – but moving teaching from classrooms to living rooms may also present opportunities to grow. The pie chart of a teachers’ day will include the same elements as before, but the balance has shifted. Let’s take this opportunity to consider staff wellbeing, giving it a healthier portion of time and attention.

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