Improving staff wellbeing is not only vital to college success, it’s our moral duty as FE leaders, says Stuart Rimmer

At the recent AOC annual conference, its president Ian Ashman declared 2016/17 the year of mental health in FE. This was an important, welcome and long overdue step that has been superbly received by the sector.

At the conference I was invited to deliver sessions on the broader topic of wellbeing, including launching the AOC Eastern Region Further Education Wellbeing Guide. It was great to see a rebalancing of the conference sessions away from an exclusive focus on skills and involving a more holistic approach to post-16 education.

At my college we have made huge gains in supporting wellbeing and mental health for students, but I admit we need to do much more to increase support for staff.

We must begin to look after ourselves from the inside out

If we are to be effective in tackling and improving wellbeing in our students, our staff must be sufficiently equipped, both in terms of personal resilience and wellbeing and with the tools and knowledge to pass onto others. We must begin to look after ourselves from the inside out.

We have introduced a ‘happy balance’ programme, initially with a focus on learners: being in an area of deprivation and with many of our students struggling with basic physical and mental needs, it was imperative that we implemented our student programme quickly.

It was relatively easy to introduce via our tutorial programmes and we partnered with Action for Happiness; adopting its ‘10 keys to happiness for students.

It has become apparent that in an ideal world staff should have come first: our staff teams are in need of more coaching, tools and knowledge, both for themselves and others.

So we are extending the programme, addressing the three elements of social, mental and physical wellbeing, to our staff.

Developing a prescription for how we can improve conditions for our teams is more challenging than for students.

At times talking to staff about their wellness can be uncomfortable and risk being perceived as a nanny-state intervention, or just one more thing to do in a busy institutional schedule of requests.

How we practically and, in some respects, philosophically approach who is responsible for improving wellbeing in the workplace is worthy of discussion. Is improving wellbeing the duty of a paternalistic college or should the individual use opportunities to help themselves? The answer is both.

Spending time and resource improving staff wellbeing is both vital to college success and our moral duty as FE leaders

We have developed activities and resources and offer a practical guide, including hints, tips and reading for self-help plus supportive intervention where needed. The importance of training and knowledge, myth-busting, meditation, counselling support, exercise, getting outside, eating well and socialising are all addressed to encourage staff to proactively improve and maintain their wellbeing.

Having recently completed the Health and Safety Executive’s stress survey, our FE staff are clearly experiencing some difficult times both inside and outside of work.

We have a long way to go. Last year we established that every member of staff would be given a wellbeing target as part of their appraisal. The targets were self-determined and ranged from running marathons through to simply setting aside time for a lunch break; from training in understanding anxiety through to yoga and mindfulness sessions.

In a sector of constant change, with mergers, area-based reviews, curriculum upheaval through Sainsbury and apprenticeship reform, performance tables and the ubiquitous pressure of Ofsted, spending time and resource improving staff wellbeing is both vital to college success and our moral duty as FE leaders.

We should want our staff to come to work happy and lead positive, flourishing lives. Increased happiness also leads quickly to improved performance too, which soon begins to feel like a win-win.

I’m hoping that 2017 can also be FE’s year of staff wellbeing and one in which we all, including principals, begin to find our ‘happy balance’.


Stuart Rimmer is principal and CEO at Great Yarmouth College