Sector support for wellbeing during the pandemic and beyond

People doing different activities under lockdown working on a computer, cooking, gardening and training

By Hayfa Mohdzaini, Senior Researcher, UCEA
12 May 2020

Technology has been truly tested, ensuring people have remained connected throughout the coronavirus lockdown. Most of our sector employees, with work that falls into the ‘non-essential travel’ category, continue to work from home efficiently. Home working has of course presented a range of challenges. While some are overcoming feelings of isolation others are pining for quiet time in which to work, with families impacting on their workplace and testing their work pace. 

In response, many HE institutions quickly adapted and built on their existing staff wellbeing resources. University College London’s impressive one-stop resource, for example, includes a space where staff can share tips on working from home through the ‘padlet’ app, while University of Edinburgh’s page on ‘Looking after your wellbeing during Covid-19’ is beautifully concise with links to university and external resources on wellbeing. On the UCEA ER Network, members in different institutions have been sharing practices as they update their wellbeing resources. In April, I set up Skype calls with members at five universities to find out more about how they are supporting staff wellbeing during lockdown and their plans for the new post pandemic sector and world that is around the corner. 

Despite strict social distancing measures universities are working hard to support staff wellbeing in all five areas of the NHS 5 steps to wellbeing

1. Connect with other people 
Staff networks and socials have moved online and universities have found innovative ways to connect virtually, running competitions and quizzes, and virtual coffee sessions. Staff even found ways to have a virtual bake-off competition and join live stream choirs like Gareth Malone’s Great British Home Chorus (University of Bradford). 

2. Be physically active  
Many universities are offering free online gym classes for staff and students. ‘Move Your Mind’ online exercise classes by King’s College sport centre is even free for the public. Users were so moved by this generosity that some even asked to ‘unfreeze’ their membership or help deliver the sessions. University of Cumbria’s Sports staff and students produced a series of videos to help adults and children keep fit at home, from ‘Living Room Olympics’ to working out with baked bean cans in the garden. So watch out, Joe Wicks! 

3. Learn new skills 
Lunch and learn sessions have also moved online and so have resilience roundtable sessions for staff – a crucial coping skill during this period. Many universities have pooled free online resources from on-demand course providers like LinkedIn Learning where users can get a free one-month trial. ‘OurTable’, University of Plymouth’s joint community dining project with their student union, compiled a library of recipes to try at home while face-to-face meetups are paused and is running online cooking classes.  

4. Give to others 
Universities are helping fight the pandemic through research and redeployment of people to support the NHS (see twitter hashtags #unisupport or #unistogether). Education staff and students have compiled and developed resources to support parents with home schooling (e.g. Edge Hill University’s Links to Learning) while others, including the University of Law, have increased the number of paid volunteer days. 

5. Mindfulness – attention to the present  
As part of being curious or regularly taking notice of people and surroundings, free yoga meditation sessions are commonplace across the sector. Some universities subscribe to the Big White Wall, an anonymous online community and resource where staff and students who are anxious or depressed can support each other while being monitored by trained professionals. More informally, universities encourage managers and staff to make time to talk about how they feel and to relax.  

Some interesting common themes across the sector include:  

  • A broad range of activities and resources to appeal to different staff, with some involving children. 
  • Participation is voluntary and flexible – staff can choose to 'dip in and dip out' as they wish. 
  • Regular activities help establish a sense of routine, punctuated with one-off events to help break monotony. 
  • Not all activities are ‘employer’ led with many initiated by staff and then financially supported or actively promoted by the university itself. Some activities are linked to projects in the wider community. 
  • Universities are generally flexible with the social media platform that staff choose to connect with others. 

It is encouraging to see that additional support for dealing with more serious wellbeing issues, like coping with grief, bereavement and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is likely to be extended after the pandemic. Edge Hill University, for example, is working with one of their senior mental health lecturers to create a wellbeing program specifically for their Faculty of Health’s staff and students, and plans to extend the program to NHS staff. This will be more than the normal provision because a lot of staff on the frontline will have experienced disturbing events and will need extra support. 

But time moves on and so universities are also considering how phased return to work might look when lockdown is lifted. It is expected that staff requests for flexible working are likely to increase after lockdown, and responses to requests will be guided by students’ expectations. Whatever the ‘new normal’ might be, supporting staff wellbeing is an essential part in shaping the workforce of the future. 

To find out more about how five universities are supporting staff wellbeing during the pandemic and their plans post pandemic, visit this wellbeing page in the UCEA member resources section. The page contains a recording of our interview with Amanda Herrity, Employee Experience Lead at Edge Hill University. The interview is one of several events on supporting staff wellbeing that UCEA is organising this year, including a joint event with Universities UK.