At least the weather has been good. Every day, after hours of zoom meetings, e-mail processing and document drafting, I’ve been able to jump onto my bike and cycle around the Mayfield Valley. I’ve seen the tiny lambs of late March grow, the grass become greener and lusher and the cow parsley shoot up. There’s the added advantage that it’s a favoured exercise haunt for any number of colleagues who I’ve thus been able to greet whilst observing social distancing. Every Thursday evening, the University’s leadership team gathers over the web in a sort of zoom ‘bar’ for a drink and a variety of quizzes. It’s been excellent for morale and cohesion. This was true despite the ‘nul points’ which my wife and I recorded on the ‘lyrics’ round this week in the quiz prepared by Professor Wigginton: we failed to identify correctly a single artist or track amongst the extracts from lyrics we were given. Deborah Harry, Chief Finance and Planning Officer was a whizz at that round. I set myself the task of reading some fat novels which have been sitting on my bookshelf for a while: I’ve completed Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Richard Powers’ The Overstory but am currently slightly becalmed at about page 500 of War and Peace. I’ve talked more, and more regularly, to old friends, some of whom, shamefully, I’d not spoken to enough in the last few years.
This is Mental Health Awareness week. We’ve all had to think about our own and others’ mental health during the COVID-19 lockdown. For me, the things I’ve described in that opening paragraph have all been important: getting outdoors to exercise each day, finding points of connection beyond work with colleagues, reading books I’d been meaning to get round to for a while, and getting back in touch with old friends and colleagues. Others will have approached things in different ways. I guess we’ve all learnt a lot about what works – and doesn’t work – for each of us. I know some colleagues have set themselves targets – Couch to 5K, language learning, more baking. Whilst for many others, the reality of juggling home-schooling and work has not afforded much personal leisure time at all.
I know it’s not been easy. I’ve done a good deal of talking to leaders in organisations beyond higher education. There’s a sense that whilst some of their employees have thrived on remote working – enjoying a different way of thinking about home-work balance – others have found it much tougher. There’s a general sense that it has got tougher as time has gone on. The initial novelty has worn off, and the sense of this being a long haul has embedded.
Partly as a result, there’s also a sense, across all employers that questions of mental health and personal well-being have become more routine, embedded into the day-to-day screen mediated communications. Times is spent checking in with each other. The university undertook a rapid-turnaround pulse staff survey to examine well-being and working arrangements during lockdown, and whilst we are now analysing the data in detail, one overwhelming finding was that staff right across the university felt that their line managers had been extremely supportive.
We have overhauled and refreshed our main staff well-being intranet site which has a wide range of activities, suggestions, links and signposts to support. I hope that during Mental Health Awareness week staff will take some time to explore it. The theme this year is ‘Be Kind’ – a reminder that looking out for each other, and taking care of ourselves, during a period of privation is something we all can and should make sure we do. A dedicated Support for Managers area has been created on the Staff Wellbeing site for all managers during the current period. This information is for managers’ own wellbeing, as well to help support teams. It includes a webinar, guidance and action plans all based on supporting the wellbeing of remote teams.
The university, along with all other organisations is now devoting a good deal of energy to thinking about what emergence from lockdown looks like. That’s far from easy: it’s not possible, even if it were desirable, to simply re-occupy instantly buildings which have been empty for two months. There are two major strands of thinking. The first, to which Dan Ladbury, our Director of Estates and his team are devoting careful thought, is the process of re-opening, including thinking hard about how we would want to re-occupy the University buildings. The second, which is linked, is to think hard about how our understandings of our working processes, including attention to student and staff well-being has shifted in the last two months. That’s not easy. When I cycled out at the end of (a very tiring and demanding) Friday, I was aware that the Fulwood Road, along which I cycle to Mayfield, was busy again. The partial easing of lockdown had brought all the traffic back. But as familiar as cycling through rush hour traffic is to me, it felt very different to be back amongst so many people.
I know from my conversations around the University that we want to approach the future in a somewhat different way: using what we have learnt about our University, our ways of working, and ourselves to create an even stronger community of students and staff.