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How should universities support staff during the pandemic?

  • 18 October 2022
  • By Rasha Kassem

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Rasha Kassem, research project team lead for ‘Impact of COVID-19 on Staff in UK Higher Education – A Comparative Analysis across the Four UK Nations’ at the Open University. See Rasha’s previous HEPI blog, ‘How did COVID-19 impact staff in UK higher education?’

Undeniably, the pandemic has adversely impacted employees in every sector, and higher education is no exception. As The Conversation recently reported, organisational support is key to employee commitment and wellbeing  as it can lessen the adverse effects of the pandemic. 

A research project funded internally by The Open University (OU) explored how universities supported staff in higher education throughout the UK during the pandemic and whether their support was found satisfactory. The research identified best practices in employer support that can inform policies and enhance resilience during similar health crises. 

There were nearly 300 respondents to an online survey which took place in 2022. Participants included academic and professional staff in UK higher education across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, although most participants were from England. The age of participants ranged from 20 to 70 years old. Most participants were full-timers, but our sample also included part-timers and contractors. More than 50 per cent of participants were parents and most did not have caring responsibilities. Most participants were females, but we also had a large number of male participants and a small number of non-binary participants. The majority of participants did not have known disabilities. 

Senior Lecturer in Accounting and Financial Management, Dr Rasha Kassem, led the cross-University research team, supported by her Business School colleague Dr Shraddha Verma and OU colleagues Dr Kerry Jones and Dr Soraya Kouadri, alongside Ruth Whitney from the OU in Scotland.

How do staff in UK Higher Education feel about their employers’ support during the pandemic?

Here are our key findings from the report:

  • Most staff said their employers provided wellbeing support during the lockdown but not enough support for mental health.
  • Most academic staff did not receive support for remote teaching.
  • Those with known disabilities were more likely to report they did not feel supported by their line manager during the lockdown.
  • Part-time staff were not aware of the employer support available during the pandemic.
  • Staff based in Wales were more likely to say their employer did not offer mental health support.

Some staff reported:

  • They had no time to access the support available due to excessive workload.
  • The support was hard to reach or, in the words of one participant, ‘the support is available if you search for it.’
  • Line managers provided little or no contact.
  • There was felt to be a lack of empathy or understanding of the pandemic’s impact on staff.
  • There were no regular check-ins with staff to ensure their safety and wellbeing.
  • There was a lack of tailored personal support, and a one-size-fits-all approach did not work.
  • There was felt to be a lack of genuine care, but instead tick-box exercises.

Were there any good practices in employer support during the pandemic?

Some staff reported the following examples of best practice employer support during the pandemic:

  • Helpful line managers were empathetic and accommodating.
  • Managers provided flexible working hours.
  • Ways for staff to interact online were set up, such as support forums and informal group chats on Zoom.
  • Support for staff wellbeing and mental health included:
  • online yoga or mindfulness workshops;
  • online wellbeing workshops on topics like how to cope;
  • online mental health workshops on how to spot mental health issues in yourself and others;
  • online counselling;
  • referrals to the occupational health team, mental health team, or Helpline;
  • links to external services or self-help resources;
  • mental health clinics and first-aiders; and
  • paid meetings with a therapist.

What form of employer support did staff appreciate the most?

Staff responses included:

  • having someone reach out to them rather than having to go and look for support;
  • being encouraged to take breaks and go outside;
  • counselling for staff and their families;
  • clear and frequent communication of support;
  • contingency leave being granted where staff had childcare issues; and
  • empathy and personalised communication were highly valued, and their absence was the most significant cause of complaints.

What kind of support would staff have liked to have received during the pandemic?

Staff responses included:

  • having mental health representatives in each department;
  • having extra time off;
  • flexible working arrangements;
  • helpful line managers;
  • more help adjusting to new processes;
  • technical support;
  • online teaching training;
  • provision of wellbeing apps;
  • relaxation facilities and phased returns;
  • fewer demands made on staff in terms of workload and hours; and
  • more help with financial burdens.

Policy implications 

Our findings showed the negative impact of the pandemic on staff in UK higher education. Although some employers supported their staff well during these unprecedented circumstances to alleviate the impact of COVID-19, others were felt to have provided insufficient care and, in some cases, were seen as adding pressure on staff. 

We recommend the following:

  1. Policymakers should guide universities in managing higher education staff during health crises. Our research includes:
    • best practices in employer support; and
    • higher education staff views on the support they would have liked to receive during the pandemic and what they appreciated most.
  2. There should be consistency in employer support across the UK and all staff should be treated equally and fairly in similar health crises
  3. We recommend that UK higher education institutions should:
    • provide ongoing compassionate support with regular check-ins by line managers;
    • provide financial support;
    • help staff adjust to new processes in times of crises;
    • provide frequent and clear communication to staff about the support they offer and how to access it; and 
    • provide training to line managers on staff mental health and wellbeing support.

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