Fit your own mental health oxygen mask before fitting others

4 May 2022, 7:00

If we want our staff to support students, we must prioritise their wellbeing, writes Asfa Sohail

Even though life for many feels it is returning more to ‘normal’ since the pandemic hit, mental health issues show little sign of abating.

Instead, poor mental health is increasing exponentially, currently affecting around one in six young people. It means the role of tutors and other staff is having to extend well beyond teaching.  

This is recognised by Ofsted, with inspectors reporting on students’ mental health and wellbeing under the key judgment area of personal development. 

As education professionals, we invest ourselves and our lives in supporting students, and pastoral care has become a key priority. But to provide this effectively, staff need to be well supported to look after their own wellbeing.

The aviation analogy of “fit your own oxygen mask before helping other people” is entirely apt here. And this applies to senior leadership teams, too. We need to lead by example ̶ looking after ourselves to ensure we are fully able to support others.

More effective wellbeing strategies needed

Working in a college can be stressful for many reasons. The start and end of each academic year are particular pressure points, with the pandemic bringing constant challenges.   

Meanwhile, the mental health and wellbeing of staff and students can be affected at any time for many different, personal reasons. So it’s essential that effective support networks are in place. But much more work is needed to implement effective wellbeing strategies into day-to-day college life.

As a leader, I have never shied away from sharing my own, personal experiences with staff. We are all human and we all experience times of stress and anxiety. I want people to know that if things get too much, you must stop.   

To help establish this message, it’s vital to normalise discussions around mental health.

Suggestions for improvement

The appointment of mental health champions in every curriculum area is an effective starting point.

Staff often feel they can approach their peers more easily than HR or SLT – not for specialist advice, but as a vital first point of contact, who can signpost more specialist support. 

Colleges can have a dedicated staff development day or regular staff forums – people need a safe space to talk about their experiences and this needs to be an integral part of college life. 

This allows specific support to be implemented, aimed at taking a preventative approach. That might range from seemingly small things, such as encouraging positive daily gratitude affirmations and encouraging people not to send emails after 6.30pm or at weekends.

Colleges may also wish to introduce a proactive mental health and wellbeing committee, and training for staff. 

Meanwhile, getting a specialist to develop a mental health action plan for your college can be hugely valuable. This helps to establish your starting point, strengths and what needs to be done.  

There are also many free training opportunities available. I’ve accessed mental health first aid training in the past for myself and a group of staff volunteers.

This helped to show that no hierarchy exists when it comes to mental health. 

Find advocates in college

Importantly, mental health and wellbeing should be articulated to staff as a collective responsibility. I’ve been asked in the past “What is the college doing?”, but I think it’s important to turn this round and ask staff “What do you think we should do?”.

Seeking out and empowering the most passionate people in your organisation to be advocates for staff mental health will positively impact the overall wellbeing of your workforce.  

FE has many challenges (from being underfunded to tough workloads), but it is also an incredibly compassionate and caring sector.

Now 197 colleges (including my own) are signed up to the Association of Colleges’ mental health and wellbeing charter.

Staff choose to work in colleges to change people’s lives. So we must continue to make their own mental health and wellbeing a priority.

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