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WEEKEND READING: Leading and Containing in Higher Education during Covid-19

  • 23 May 2020
  • By Charlotte Williams

This piece was kindly contributed by Charlotte Williams, a qualified organisational consultant, counsellor, trainer and clinical supervisor at Tavistock Consulting. Charlotte has over 17 years of experience in higher education and was previously head of a London University Counselling Service and has a particular interest in staff and organisational wellbeing.

Student mental health has been on the agenda for some time, and of late we are seeing increasing awareness and concerns around staff mental health. This has been documented in HEPI’s publications such as The invisible problem? Improving students’ mental health by Poppy Brown, The Positive and Mindful University by Anthony Seldon and Alan Martin and most recently Pressure Vessels II: An update on mental health among higher education staff in the UK by Dr Liz Morrish, and Professor Nicky Priaulx.

Considering the additional pressures and challenges to our mental health and wellbeing that the Covid-19 crisis poses, this article attempts to offer some practical ways in which professionals and academics in positions of leadership can increase emotional containment for other staff and students during the Covid-19 crisis.

Individuals and groups experience emotion in their work life. These emotions motivate and inspire us, as well as disable and distress us. During times of change or crises, anxiety and distress intensifies across an organisation and in response the level of containment provided within an organisation needs to be increased. Containment is key to supporting the members of the organisation to manage emotions and continue to function and is typically provided through organisational structures and relationships. Alongside clear, relevant and adapted structures, the relationships of leaders, managers, academics and support services with staff and students create a containing and supportive environment within which staff and students can continue to work.

One of the key and often insufficiently acknowledged roles of leaders and managers working within higher education is to absorb the distress of students and staff, process it and work together to find a way to manage or live with it. Those who simply pass on the negative emotions or deny them do not offer containment but contribute to creating a more stressful environment for others. Many professionals will be containing others on a day-to-day basis without particularly noticing that is what they are doing.

Leadership is paramount in containing the people of the organisation so whether you are the Vice-Chancellor, Head of Department, Academic Registrar, Team Leader in Estates and Facilities, Head of Counselling or an academic, think about the importance of your role as a container for the people you lead, manage and support. Think about the impact you have when you connect with students, colleagues and the people you manage, listen to them, and get to know them. Think about how it impacts them when you are clear about goals and expectations and provide them with the knowledge, structures and procedures to guide them. Now reflect on what happens when for whatever reason you don’t.

Given the present circumstance and the impact Covid-19 is having on students, staff and universities there are a number of practical steps leaders and managers can take to create a containing environment:

Be present – Despite not being able to be physically in the building we can be present remotely, this means not only scheduling more contact with people but ensuring you are psychologically present when you meet them (ie not attending to your emails whilst chairing the meeting).

Be authentic & acknowledge uncertainty and vulnerability – It can be tempting as a leader to want to provide certainty to anxious staff and students. Not having certainty and immediate answers can leave leaders feeling vulnerable and impotent and staff anxious. Avoid the temptation to provide answers where they are not yet known. Recognise and acknowledge what you do not know and the anxiety that staff and students might feel in light of the uncertainty. Tell them you are working with colleagues to find answers to their questions and will communicate them back when you do, invite them to think with you about how to address things where appropriate. Although it can be challenging for followers when leaders cannot provide certainty, it is even more unnerving and potentially damaging when leaders pretend, they can. When leaders are discovered as inauthentic or bluffing, they are often experienced as untrustworthy which further increases organisational anxiety and it can take significant amounts of time to regain trust.

Communicate regularly – It is particularly important when working remotely to make time for both group and individual meetings with staff and students. All of those corridor conversations are important and are not currently available. Arrange additional meetings, coffee breaks, social activities and check-ins.

Communicate clearly – Whilst there are so many communications coming online try not to send out long emails with lots of information as people tend to miss things. Send out regularly short communications with key messages and links to further information.

Make Space for the Personal – Spend time checking in with your staff and students both personally and professionally, get to know them, find out what they are dealing with and how life is for them now. What worries them? Do they have space both physically and psychologically to work / study? How are they structuring their day, managing boundaries? Are they getting exercise? Do they meet up with friends and family online? Use a coaching style approach to help them to think through how best to manage, be flexible and understanding, and help them be creative in finding ways to support themselves. If you do not hear from someone, do not assume you no news is good news, drop them a line. Do not think that personal matters and wellbeing are not your business, they are everyone’s responsibility in a crisis. If you are concerned about someone, do not ignore it, speak to it and if you feel unable to do so yourself, ask a colleague for help to do so.

Raise awareness – Acknowledge that we are living in challenging times and the impact this can have on people. Raise awareness to the support services, apps and resources that are available for staff and students within and external to the institution.

Avoid being ‘Always On’ – During a crisis, adrenaline and anxiety can drive us. People often forget to do the things that keep them well and only stop when they hit a wall and crash. How you operate as a leader will set the scene for other staff and students. Role model taking time out, taking breaks, maintaining boundaries, connecting with others, making time to connect with others socially (online).

Be mindful of difference – We are all in the same storm but only some of us have a boat. Be aware that everyone’s circumstances are different, some people have spare rooms to work in, undisturbed time and space, are good at setting boundaries for themselves, keeping a routine, exercising, connecting with others. Others will have a whole range of difficulties with this. Do not expect everyone to be able to operate at the same pace. Some people thrive off change and adrenaline and will be adapting, creating and streaking ahead of the curve. Others will be bereft, struggling to adapt and suffering with depression and anxiety. The majority of us will be somewhere in the middle. Change is hard, we manage it at different paces and in different ways – be patient and kind.

Create Psychological Safety – Creating an environment within which people feel safe to talk about their wellbeing and to be vulnerable is paramount. Revise and revisit how you communicate both overtly and covertly in your day to day interactions that this is a safe place to be vulnerable.

Ensure Physical Safety – Work together to ensure accommodation needs are met for those unable to leave the country or return to a home (care leavers / refugees / international students/temporary staff / those experiencing domestic abuse).

Identify and Address Risk – Regardless of how supportive the organisation is there are some people who will become unwell during this crises. As we face multiple losses as a society, more people who have not previously been unwell are experiencing their first encounter with mental health difficulties and those who already have mental health difficulties or conditions are susceptible to relapse or deterioration. Increase mechanisms that help staff identify and reach out to those at risk – signs of this might include absenteeism, perfectionist behaviours, changes in communication styles or behaviours, or you may have information already about students who are vulnerable. Provide guidelines to staff on what to do if risk to self or other is suspected – tackle these matters together.

Resource Services – We know that the full impact of this crises on the mental health and wellbeing of the nation is yet to be seen. Those suffering as a result of this period are likely to increase as time goes on. Some staff and students will lose family and friends, some will be working on the frontline. It is important at this time that the support services are ready and sufficiently resourced to be able to respond in a timely manner even in the face of staff sickness.

Amend and adapt structures and processes – During times of great uncertainty, some certainty where available is well received. Although structures and frames have pros and cons and we all like to complain about deadlines, marking, exams, policies and procedures, this is also part of what keeps us contained and safe. Higher education institutions have the task of maintaining, adapting and renewing these structures and processes at speed during the current situation. So many things have had to and continue to change, lectures postponed, assessments changed, terms cancelled increasing levels of uncertainty and anxiety as a result. It is important for leaders within institutions to work together to adapt the structures and processes to create an amended frame for those within the organisation. Such adaptations and amendments need communicating clearly and regularly to the whole community of staff and students.

Setting your own structures and processes – When working or studying from home it is important to take care of yourself and to encourage staff and students to create their own structures and boundaries in relation to their work / study.

  • Do not expect business as usual: be flexible, kind, understanding of yours and others situation.
  • Set a routine: maintain a regular time for waking up, eating and going to bed.
  • Dress for the day. If you are working, put on your work clothes and start on time.
  • Take regular breaks: pace your online meetings.
  • Mute your social media apps and news updates.
  • Link in daily with colleagues / fellow students.
  • Switch off when you finish. If you cannot move rooms, tidy your things away and cover your workstation.

In my work across sectors during Covid-19, I am struck by the simplicity of things that contain and support human beings in a crisis. The most important being connection with others, and I mean real connection, where we talk from the heart of our experience and have a chance to share that experience with others. Despite all the changes we have and continue to face, there are things that contain us. If we dare to connect and acknowledge our ability, responsibility and potential to contain others, then functioning and learning can continue and our wellbeing can be supported, even in times of crises.

1 comment

  1. Helen Walker says:

    Great article, very insightful.

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