Covid-19 has impacted the mental wellbeing of staff and students across Higher Education. According to Universities UK’s recent ‘Stepchange’ report, leaders in Higher Education need to focus their attention on the mental health of staff, as well as students.[1] This builds on the ‘Time to Change’ pledge many universities and employers signed in 2014, committing HE institutions to end mental health stigma and discrimination in the workplace.

The University of Bath

The University of Bath signed the ‘Time to Change’ pledge in 2014, committing them to tackle stigma and discrimination surrounding mental health in the workplace. The pledge ended in 2020 but it established a long-term commitment to bettering staff mental health support at the university.

Heather Girling was brought on as the Staff Wellbeing Manager in 2019. With over 20 years of experience in workplace wellbeing, she has been working to improve staff wellbeing at the university. We spoke to Heather about mental wellbeing and the work that needs to be done to destigmatise mental health in the workplace.

MGC: Could you tell us a little bit more about your role as a staff wellbeing manager at the University of Bath?

Heather: This was a new role established 3 years ago, before that, there wasn’t anyone managing staff wellbeing, and because of this, it’s a very diverse role. There are around 2500 full-time staff and roughly 1000 part-time staff employed by the university.

I am involved in some strategic elements, which are more long term and big picture areas that might influence culture change, particularly around mental health and wellbeing. An example of this is the engagement with the Student Minds Mental Health Charter, but that’s very much a strategic and a culture change project. Other aspects of my role are more operational and involve delivering one to one coaching or support sessions on wellbeing or group training and development for particular teams. It’s amazing what work is being done for staff welfare at the university.

This role started before the pandemic and it was fairly unusual for an organisation, a University, to have someone leading on staff wellbeing so it’s great to be in a position to help staff more. Of course, there’s massive support for student wellbeing, but at the university, it has been recognised that if our staff aren’t well, our students won’t be well, obviously not the same service because it’s a different audience. But giving that attention to and looking at staff well being is important. And yes, it’s a very exciting role to be in, as well as a sad role sometimes too.

MGC: What impact has the promote, prevent and support approach to wellbeing had at the University?

Heather: This is a programme I brought in fairly early on and it’s helped focus our time and attention to look more broadly at the needs of the community. It is easy to invest all the limited resources available in supporting people when they have gone wrong, personally or professionally. However, all the science tells us that if we’re Proactive and look at causes of poor wellbeing and spot signs earlier, then we can make a bigger impact on the person.

Heather on being proactive about staff wellbeing

[…] This approach has given a much broader view of the needs and priorities to help people and teams problem-solve together to take responsibility for each other’s wellbeing. This has helped us recognise that wellbeing is everyone’s responsibility. It’s not just me helping people as the staff wellbeing manager, it’s encouraging everyone to think about it from their perspective. This helps promote how to staff how incredibly important it is to look after themselves. It’s not a selfish approach, but consideration for colleagues to support them with anything they might be going through.

It’s welcoming to staff that there’s so much research and focus on organisational wellbeing too as this can be used to help us to think about our approach and think more broadly, to provide better support to staff. Since I joined the university there have been comments about how great it is that wellbeing is now part of the everyday conversation, compared to 3 years ago when it was hardly a point of discussion. This is a really good sign of progress and how far the university has come.

When we think about the promote, prevent, support approach, promotion is all about communication. And so we work closely with the communications team to think about different events that are going on locally or worldwide regarding mental health. Time to talk, and also blogs, posters, team talks- all of these different things help us to promote and make wellbeing part of our everyday conversation.

Prevent is about taking the research we’ve gathered and putting it into practice to support staff. We understand that not every department is the same and has the same needs regarding welfare. Working directly with them, we have developed departmental wellbeing action plans for each department to address their needs. It is understood that every role at the university is different so the approach to the welfare model needs to be different too. Then of course support is there too, making sure people know where they can go if they’re taking a tumble and need help to get back up.

MGC: How has the Staff Wellbeing Champions Network promoted a culture of openly discussing mental health at the university?

Heather: This network is a volunteer network which means people who are passionate about the topic of wellbeing as champions. Some of them also have lived experience of poor mental health so they see wellbeing from a different angle too, often using their own experiences to advocate for wellbeing. We can work with that network to build their confidence about having those conversations around wellbeing as it’s the everyday conversations that help to normalise mental health.

Heather on peer to peer support networks

Human beings are very good at knowing things, and it’s doing something with that knowledge that makes the difference, this is what being a champion is about, applying the passion they have for wellbeing. Their passion for wellbeing is then spread wider and in more local situations, creating open discussions between staff. It also means that because they get to know each other, they’ve got peer to peer support and it’s a supportive network between them.

It’s a well-known network that supports itself to support others in the wider community, building on that message of communication I discussed earlier. The champions place more people at the core of the wellbeing network in the university. The more people there are in this network, the better it is for all staff at the university.

MGC: How can we work to make workplaces spaces where people feel that they can talk about their mental health with their colleagues and employers?

Heather on communication and wellbeing

Heather: One thing that I think helps in this area is consistent dialogue and communication. While stigma about mental health and wellbeing is reducing in the UK and worldwide, in some areas, my experience indicates there’s still a long way to go. […]I think we’re making progress, which is good, but it is those complexities that when you think at the very time when people think, actually I could do with telling people that I’m suffering from anxiety, that that’s the very time that they might not feel confident talking.

Again, I think that consistent and constant dialogue can help.

At its core, stigma is caused by three root problems: ignorance, prejudice and discrimination. Communication can address all of those things and contribute to managing them as it’s useful in normalising the problem so that people can get help managing mental health issues they may face in their everyday lives. Having stories about the fact that it could be and it might be a permanent situation or it might be short-lived helps give people the support they need.

MGC: How can workplaces be more open and supportive of staff with mental health conditions?

Heather: Changes happening in the workplace need to come from a number of angles. If I give you some of the examples we’ve looked at: policies and procedures, sickness absence or attendance policies. If managers are looking for guidance, then the guidance and processes in these systems can help structure an approach to welfare.

[…]Acknowledging that people have somebody to go to talk about confidential issues so they can get the support they need to manage a situation is vital. Having the policies and procedures in place as an organisation is vital in supporting staff as it means they can be made of the relevant channels they need to reach out to for help.

Heather on supporting managers

Supporting managers to get the relevant wellbeing training is also key. Anybody with a supervisory role can help employees, all they need are the right tools to build their confidence in talking about mental health. One of the things we work with all staff to deliver is training and development on confident conversations. With training, if somebody approaches them they might have the confidence to talk to that individual and signpost them to where they can go for help depending on the severity of the situation.

At the university, we have trained and qualified coaches so if people are struggling with workload issues then the coaches can talk them through and look at strategies to help them manage those issues. If people were having suicidal thoughts, we have a very close relationship with our local hospital and they run our employee assistance programme. We have contracts in place with qualified counsellors and psychotherapists so staff can self-refer or be referred to these services. This is about giving the manager the resources to signpost individuals to services for help, ensuring everyone’s wellbeing is looked after.

[…]It’s important to acknowledge the pressures and priorities all staff face, giving them the attention they need to face any issues or talk about experiences. By having these networks and policies in place all staff can have the attention they need to come forward and feel supported in their workplace.  

If there was one way to do all this, everybody would be doing it, but that’s just not the way of the world. I think we have to have a multi-pronged approach so that we can address every angle and acknowledge that in some areas you make a lot more progress than others and quicker.

MGC: What impact has the pandemic had on destigmatising mental health in the workplace?

Heather: It put people’s circumstances in the open when we’re working remotely and I think that has been helpful and accommodating as we can see colleagues’ circumstances and try to help in any way we can. This was never permitted before as we weren’t invited inside everyone’s homes. I think understanding people’s circumstances has helped in all different situations. […]It has made conversations easier in approaching staff to discuss if I can’t do both as we get to know those different circumstances.

On the other side of things, I think it has been very easy to hide things as well, to switch off our cameras or blur our background so that we don’t give people a window into that world that we want to hide from. But again, I think it’s helped us as a University to develop different tools.[…]For example, our employee assistance program was all face to face before the pandemic and moved online during the lockdown. Now many people preferred the online option we deployed, showing how we have benefited from adapting programmes as a result of Covid-19. We need to continually build on these changes we made and recognise if we can cope with the impacts of the pandemic then we can probably cope with anything.

Heather on the pandemic and wellbeing

We’re moving as a country into living with Covid-19, and it’s the same with the workplace. Employers need to understand the positives and negatives of hybrid working to understand what models of working are best suited to their staff. By understanding this employers can learn what is better suited for employees and their mental health, creating a workplace environment they all feel comfortable in. It needs to be recognised though that one approach will not work for everyone, meaning consistency is needed.

MGC: How can universities provide better support to staff?

Heather: I think this is a good opportunity to talk about the student mind mental health charter. There are a number of approaches and different ways of focusing on wellbeing. We got involved fairly early on with student minds to help with the research on this and now we are one of the early adopters for it. It’s really interesting to me because of its progressive approach and how it has brought the whole university community together. We’re all working together towards a standard that identifies several areas for us to think about to improve wellbeing services across the university.

One thing I like about the charter is it’s flexible. What this university might be able to offer, another University couldn’t just because of its location for example. […]We’re at the early stages of it where we’re thinking about all the different things we can do, and the impact we all have on each other too. It’s helping us to identify really good practices and learn about some of the projects that might be going under the radar that are happening in another part of the university.

This combined approach is the way forward as it recognises how interlinked staff and student wellbeing are. If our staff aren’t well, our students won’t be well. This tends to be the same in any organisation. When we think about our employees and our customers, we need to make sure we’re well enough to deliver a good learning experience for the students. If a student has an anxious personal tutor, then they’re not going to receive the support they need. The charter provides an opportunity to evaluate what wellbeing practices are working for staff and students alike.

Key Takeaways

  • Open communication is key to destigmatising mental health in the workplace, it needs to be encouraged so people with mental health issues can get the support they need.
  • Workplaces need to provide managers the training they need to better support staff with their mental health and wellbeing.
  • We need to apply any lessons learned in the pandemic, so wellbeing services can be continually improved.
  • Staff and student wellbeing are linked, so by improving staff wellbeing services, universities can improve the student experience.

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Throughout the pandemic Higher education providers have had to devise new ways to support student and staff wellbeing. In this interview with University of Bath, Staff Wellbeing Manager, Heather Girling, we explore how to remove the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace.

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