Vice-Chancellor’s blog — November 2018

November 11th, 2018

As we launch the University’s first Week of Wellbeing, I would like to use my blog to reflect on my vision for wellbeing, some important initiatives that are underway, and how we need to act together as a University community to improve the sense of wellbeing among our staff and students.

The intensifying levels of change in the higher education sector due to global competition, Brexit, the turbulent government policy environment, and the increasing demands and expectations on staff and students have exacerbated feelings of stress and mental health challenges within universities. We are a large community which faces an unprecedented amount of complexity and pressure, both collectively and individually.

Our staff survey has provided local evidence of widespread disengagement, and the nature of complaints I regularly receive has indicated that there are unfortunate examples of poor behaviour, on the one hand, and mental health concerns on the other. Although the two are not always linked, we need to minimise the former and enhance support for the latter to ensure that we have a university culture that is constructive and supportive.

This is not a ‘soft’ issue. A high level of organisational wellbeing is not only part of our duty of care as an institution, but research has demonstrated the link between wellbeing and fewer sick days, better health outcomes and higher productivity. Difficult conversations, unpopular decisions and choices will continue to be necessary, but we need to cultivate an environment that enables freedom to express conflicting views in a mutually respectful way.

There are different definitions of ‘wellbeing’, but for the sake of this blog, I will refer to that of the Mental Health Foundation:

Wellbeing is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy.” However, it is important to realise that wellbeing is a much broader concept than moment-to-moment happiness. While it does includes happiness, it also includes other things, such as how satisfied people are with their life a whole, their sense of purpose, and how in control they feel.

There are many significant initiatives being undertaken in the University to improve our culture of wellbeing. This week alone, there are four major contributions to this agenda:

  • the Week of Wellbeing with more than 140 workshops, events and activities to support staff in their mental, social, financial, physical and workplace wellbeing.
  • the introduction of a new online Employee Hub providing staff with an employee assistance programme offering confidential face-to-face and telephone counselling, professional advice on financial, health and legal issues and an extensive range of benefits and discounts.
  • the opening of the new Cripps Health Centre, generously supported by our long-term friends at the Cripps Foundation. As the largest GP practice in the country, it will bring the NHS GPs into closer contact with the University’s mental health team to provide more coordinated care.
  • the confirmation of our new Student Health and Wellbeing Strategy, following extensive consultation with students, to improve how we care for our students.

This is a welcome list, but we still have a long way to go. For example, we need to take a bit more time to consider what a staff wellbeing strategy might look like, and this will be a major piece of work for our new People and Human Resources Committee this year.

As a community we also must question whether we are complicit in the worrying trend of bullying across the university sector, which is increasingly highlighted in the media. Given that we are living in an age when high profile people in public life feel it is acceptable to make personal and offensive remarks about individuals, it is perhaps no surprise that others mimic what they perceive as role models.

However, to my mind, examples of bullying are not simply confined to misguided or malevolent individuals, but the practice has been democratised throughout society by social media. Arguably, and regardless of your political viewpoint, the most bullied person in the country at the moment is the Prime Minister, who is also the most powerful person in the country.

Therefore I believe that every individual in our University community — whatever their position — has a role to play to challenge bullying and to promote wellbeing in their local environments.

To begin to consider how we cultivate a culture of civility, support and constructive dialogue, I have asked our PVC for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Sarah Sharples, to work with the Trades Unions and colleagues throughout the University to identify ways in which we can tackle any areas of the University where bullying appears to be evidenced. We need to be able to have uncomfortable conversations in order to bring ourselves to a better place.

I would like to end with offering a vision for wellbeing: while we are a University that rightly has high expectations of performance for staff and students, we need to create a culture of support, development, empowerment, constructive dialogue, openness and mutual respect to ensure that every opportunity is provided for staff and students to meet those high expectations while feeling supported in their workplace environment.

I have every confidence that the initiatives we have put in place, and those we are developing, will move us towards realising this vision in practice.

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