It’s always Okay To… continue the conversation

A reflection to mark Mental Health Awareness Week

By Professor Hugh Brady, Vice-Chancellor and President

I was delighted to see how successfully last term’s ‘It’s Okay To…’ campaign shone a light on some really important issues around our mental health and wellbeing during this challenging time. I was especially impressed by the staff contributions to this blog, which are thoughtful, compassionate, honest and, I’m sure, helpful to many colleagues. My thanks to our Mental Health Champions for organising such a worthwhile project.

The campaign may have ended, but its sentiment and the messages hold true. Social isolation, stress and anxiety continue to be a feature of life for many of us, and the range of contributors to the blog – from administrators and academics to members of the Executive Team – demonstrates just how pervasive the wider effects of the pandemic have been; but we should always feel able to take a step back, breathe, and connect with someone if we feel the need.

On a personal note, I wish to thank all the contributors for their openness, generosity and courage. This has been, without doubt, the most challenging and difficult year I have experienced during almost four decades as a clinician, educator, researcher and university president, and I found the words of these wonderful colleagues both comforting and inspiring in equal measure!

This is the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Week, which serves as another reminder to us that, while campaigns and themed national events can be an effective way to focus attention on mental health, the importance of looking after ourselves and each other is a year-round issue.

Do have a look at the events and resources that our colleagues in Staff Engagement and other teams have organised for the week – and please do take part, to any degree you feel able to. Sign up to an event, take part in a discussion, or just take this year’s theme of ‘Nature’ as a prompt to get out into the countryside or find a quiet green space in the city.

Our conversations about mental health at Bristol will continue, including the very real issues of workload that I know can sometimes present a major challenge to the notion of relaxation. In the meantime, please remember the message of last term’s campaign, in all its variations: if you need to disconnect and reconnect, to stare out of the window, to take baby steps, to catch up over coffee, to ask for help 20 times a day, or to make some small changes to your routine that could improve your work and home life during this unsettling time, please do. It’s Okay To.

As part of the University’s Mental Health Awareness Week events, the Mental Health Champions are running a Wellbeing Strategy Discussion Group. The outcomes will be fed back to the Executive Team – so if you’d like to influence the discussion, book a place and join the conversation.

Why ‘It’s Okay To…’? (How the campaign began)

By Molly Williams, Marketing and Communications Officer, Sport, Exercise and Health

For me, the crucial missing piece of the working-from-home puzzle over the past 12 months has been the commute chit-chat; the ‘what are you watching on Netflix?’ debriefs; and the mid-afternoon ‘anyone for a tea?’ interludes. The COVID-induced changes to our ways of working removed significant opportunities for these kinds of social interaction. The conversations and connections which would have taken place seamlessly and spontaneously under ‘normal’ office working conditions hadn’t just changed, they had stopped altogether for a lot of staff.

Feelings of disconnection and isolation are enough alone to impact individual wellbeing, but within the wider context of a pandemic, and the rapid (necessary, but no less stressful) changes forced upon us, it’s really a no-brainer as to why so many of us were struggling with our general wellbeing.

This is what motivated the Mental Health Champions to come up with a campaign – which became ‘It’s Okay To…’ – for TB2. We wanted to encourage staff to reconnect with colleagues for the benefit of our wellbeing.

Lingering stigma?

I heard something in a podcast recently which really hit the nail on the head about why we (the Staff Mental Health Champions) decided to propose ‘It’s Okay To…’ as a campaign to the University.

Whilst undeniably important progress has been made in giving ‘the mental health conversation’ more airtime of late, there still seems to be a lingering stigma attached – especially in a workplace context – to taking any action which benefits our mental health.

What does this mean in practice? It means that, while staff may feel empowered to vocalise to a colleague or manager that they are struggling (with feelings of anxiety, depression, overwhelm or any other mental illness), they may not yet feel able to do more. For example, they might feel unjustified in taking a sick day due to poor mental health; protecting time for lunchbreaks or meeting-free working; or simply stepping away from a task for a much-needed moment of cognitive breathing space.

The changes to our working life in 2020, and being isolated from our colleagues, seemed only to exacerbate this internalised stigma. More and more of us (Mental Health Champions included!) were feeling that it’s not okay to make changes to our working routine, despite the positive impact it could have on our wellbeing. It was almost as if we were waiting for a permission slip to be handed to us before we’d believe it really was ‘okay’ to make (or even suggest) reasonable adjustments to our day.

Launching ‘It’s Okay To…’

With support from the Staff Engagement and Senior Executive Teams, ‘It’s Okay To…’ set out to let our colleagues know the permission was there. This support was important, because discussions amongst our Champions network indicated a need for these changes and behaviours to be endorsed and modelled by staff in positions of leadership. How were our most senior members of staff prioritising their wellbeing, and that of their team, during this time?

What keeps us ‘well’ – especially in the workplace – is not ‘one size fits all’, and our aim with this campaign was not to be prescriptive. Instead, through a series of blog posts authored by staff at all levels, we aimed to share examples of what is (and what isn’t) working for individual colleagues, and wider teams, across the University.

Much broader than its original focal point of ‘social isolation’, the campaign blog is now a space where staff have shared a huge range of different perspectives on wellbeing at work – a welcome natural progression, and one I hope has benefitted many during this time. Despite the pressures of unpredictable change, workload and a pandemic, we are still able to find small ways to put our wellbeing first throughout the working day.

Thank you to all staff who have contributed to our blog over the past term. We have heard from people sharing their experiences of reclaiming time through: shorter meetings and meeting-free days (something we’ve been trialling in Sport, Exercise and Health with success); staring out of the window and doing absolutely nothing between meetings; disconnecting for a while, in order to reconnect better next time; allowing ‘good enough’ to be good enough; and (as a manager) taking a breather with your team.

What’s next – looking beyond ‘It’s Okay To…’

Making these small changes to our working week, reclaiming small pockets of time, and taking the opportunity to put our wellbeing first – it has always been okay to do these things. But if you’re still wondering ‘has it, really?’, to me this further highlights the importance of ‘It’s Okay To…’ in establishing that it has.

This campaign has helped colleagues start conversations about what was and is still okay. Communication is the key – staff want to be involved in conversations and decisions which relate to their mental health and wellbeing at work. Conversations, ideally initiated and led by senior staff, need to continue at individual, team, faculty and institutional level about how staff wellbeing can and will be prioritised, and how staff as individuals can feel empowered to make change and take action for their own wellbeing at work, and that of their colleagues too.

The ‘It’s Okay To…’ blog will stay online, as a resource to spark future decision-making and planning as we move towards another ‘new normal’ for working life over the coming weeks and months, and to keep the conversation going.


It’s Okay To… catch up over coffee

By Andrew Monk, Executive Director of Development and Alumni Relations (DARO)

For me personally, one of the most positive aspects of work is the wonderful team and colleagues I work with. It’s not just that they’re great at what they do, it’s that they’re caring, compassionate, funny and entertaining company.

The social aspect of daily life in the office helps to keep me motivated and connected. Tracking the highs and lows of who’s moving house; how somebody’s children are settling into school; the merits of different creations on The Great British Bake Off; the post-Six Nations teasing, following yet another disappointing performance by England. These are just some of the conversations I would normally be having around the office.

Of course, this past year has been different. Conversations typically are more deliberate than spontaneous and making a cup of tea involves conversations with my plants rather than colleagues! I have found this really hard, and continually crave the connection which I’ve always found so important for my own mental health and wellbeing.

In DARO we have taken a proactive approach, championed by various colleagues across the team, especially our Staff Experience Group, to try to make space and time for those conversations. From informal ‘drop-in’ coffee mornings and monthly ‘elevenses’ which give us the chance to catch up with colleagues informally in break-out rooms on Zoom, to a comprehensive online Christmas party with goody boxes for each team member – we’ve tried to create space and actively encourage that personal connection.

I think it is important for all of us to remember that it’s okay to take a breather within our working day to connect with colleagues. On a personal note, I’ve taken various approaches over the past year. I am aware that I often see the same people in meetings, and so have made a conscious effort to connect with all my colleagues across DARO.

One year on, I’m making time for one or two coffees every week, and catching up with individual members of the team. It is easy to think “I haven’t got time for this, there’s too much going on”, however, what I’ve found is that it’s during these conversations that we’ve often touched on things which are helpful for work, as well as for feeling that sense of personal connection. This is motivating and inspiring for me – these connections help to foster my sense of wellbeing.

In the interests of always learning, this week we in DARO are trialing a new platform – – which allows you to move around a virtual environment and ‘bump’ into people for conversations. This has been championed by our Staff Experience Group and is just one example of their commitment to helping to find ways to help the team stay connected.

So just remember, it is always okay to catch up over a coffee, although I would strongly advocate for it involving tea and biscuits too!


Is it Okay To… do nothing?

By Victoria Newton, EAP Teacher, Centre for Academic Language and Development

When a fellow Mental Health Champion shared ‘How to Stay Calm in a Global Pandemic‘, a free eBook written by Dr Emma Hepburn, one particular message stood out to me. Amidst so much advice being shared about how to manage and cope, this information can, in itself, become overwhelming. In reality, no amount of advice on how to manage your wellbeing, thoughts, feelings and emotions can be universally applied and you are not getting anything wrong if the recommendations don’t work for you.

Over the past year I have found myself thinking about all the things I could be doing to restore my energy and make the most of all the opportunities available, to stay connected and inspired. Yet, I hadn’t considered what I could stop doing.

On the very same day that Dr Hepburn’s book was shared with me, a clear, and timely, message popped up on my Headspace app: “Do nothing for three minutes right now”. I realised in that moment that I was forgetting one very important thing:

It’s okay to… do nothing.

It’s okay to embrace the empty space. Time doesn’t always have to be filled with an activity. We don’t have to meditate or make a cup of tea in those ten “in between” minutes before the next meeting if we don’t want to. Whilst listening to calming music, going for a walk and doing stretches are great ways to take a break from our screen, I have found it important to remember that there is also the option of removing all stimulus completely, in favour of a “pause”.

It was a CALD colleague, Donna Maclean, who coined a term I now love: Cognitive Breathing Space (CBS).

One way we can enjoy some Cognitive Breathing Space is to close our eyes or simply stare at a wall – just to take a moment to remove as much sensory stimulation as possible. In short, consciously do nothing.

It’s also okay to refuse any of the ‘self-improvement’ life hacks that don’t actually serve us. We must all know someone who has jumped on one of the many lockdown bandwagons: making sourdough bread; learning to juggle; mastering a new language; playing a musical instrument; developing artistic talents; or joining online exercise classes. Whilst these are all excellent activities, they don’t always need to be top of the list, if simply sitting quietly for a while would be more beneficial.

So here is your challenge, should you wish to accept it – your reminder, should you need it:

Give yourself three minutes today to do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

Personally, I found it much harder to achieve than I expected. It can feel like an unnatural thing to do during an otherwise hectic working day, but it’s so refreshing when I manage it. In fact, I’m definitely going to do nothing, more often, from now on.


It’s Okay To… not go to the party

By Robert Schultz-Graham, REPHRAIN Centre Administrator, Faculty of Engineering

As trite as it may be to say so, it’s important to acknowledge that working from home is fundamentally different to working in an office environment. The last year has been my first prolonged experience of working alone; where there had previously been the hustle and bustle of colleagues or the gentle murmur of office chatter, there is now the drip of a coffee machine and whatever lo-fi beats are on YouTube.

Everyone’s experience of working in this way (and of the last year generally) will be different. Personally, working from home has given me the space to arrest a backslide into depression, aided by the University’s excellent Counselling Service. I’ve been able to assess my mental health on a more frequent and meaningful basis, with the aid of my support network and various mechanisms and safeguards I have managed to put in place. I appreciate how fortunate I am in this regard.

Another change has been the influx of video meetings as a replacement for face-to-face meetings. As well as work-related meetings, optional social catch-ups and virtual coffees began as a substitute for the more neighbourly aspects of office life.

Initially, I welcomed these informal meetings – while not always the most extroverted individual, I enjoy the company of others (I’ve been using Teams chats with colleagues as a small trickle of conversation throughout the day, as well as various email chains throughout the University community) and saw the wisdom in attending these social events.

I recognise how important these social meetings have been for staff wellbeing, especially for those who live alone or thrive on social contact, and I’ve also felt these benefits. But of course, these events are not a like-for-like substitution: a scheduled, virtual chat doesn’t replicate the organic and incidental conversation of a working day in the office, nor does the technology lend itself to discrete discussions. Furthermore, the switch from working alone at home to suddenly mingling with any number of others can be jarring and fatiguing (see, for example, research at Stanford and an April 2020 article in the Guardian).

Over time, I noticed my capacity to contribute to these events was diminishing, as was the effect they were having on my wellbeing. I decided a change was in order – if a desired outcome of these events is to improve my general happiness, I can achieve this via other means.

I now view these meeting slots as wellbeing breaks. I still drink coffee, but away from my screen, sometimes while taking some air in the street. I use the allotted time to do something meditative, such as yoga or sitting with our pet rabbits, or something more focused, like practicing on my guitar or catching up on some reading. As I need, I do nothing at all, allowing my brain and mind time to process and unpack.

As a result, I’ve found myself more refreshed and with a clearer head, better able to tackle my work efficiently and productively and to support my colleagues and myself. Taking time to assess what is working for us and letting go of what no longer serves us is vital to our individual and collective wellbeing.


It’s Okay To… ask for help 20 times a day

By Jack Pitts, Media and PR Manager (Education and Student Experience) and his line manager Philippa Walker, Head of Media & PR, External Relations Division


‘Sorry, can you just show me how to…’

Those words are the soundtrack to any new starter’s first few weeks.

Usually, they become the temporary soundtrack for all your new workmates too; but on this occasion things would be slightly different. Instead of pitching up to a new office feeling self-conscious and overly smart, I would simply be sitting down at my kitchen table (feeling self-conscious and overly smart).

This time there would be that familiar feeling of excitement and trepidation at what’s to come – learning new, seemingly incomprehensible software, remembering dozens of new names and navigating a new set of inter-team politics – but with the added complication of doing it all remotely.

It wasn’t going to be easy.

Or so I thought.

In actual fact, the combination of an amazingly helpful team, a great manager, the general friendliness of everyone I ‘met’ and faultless tech made the whole experience painless. If that comes as a surprise to you, imagine how it felt for me.

Learning new things through video chats and screen sharing – as our students well know – really does work. And although it may not be the ideal way to start a new job, I never found it stressful or difficult.

That said, I’m looking forward to finally meeting my team in person, which will no doubt feel like starting the job all over again!

Perhaps the challenges of starting a new role remotely are balanced by being in the comforting surroundings of your own home. Certainly, saying my first hellos to the team in the same chair that I had my leaving party from the BBC in felt odd, but hardly anything over the past year has felt normal.

It did mean that instead of swiveling in my seat to ask someone a question, I had to call people, uttering, for the hundredth time, ‘sorry, can you just show me how to…’

But at least it was only me, and my very jaded housemate, who had to hear it 20 times a day.


Jack’s arrival and integration with the team has felt surprisingly seamless from my perspective too. I certainly felt more anxious than I would normally feel welcoming a new team member to a physical office, both in terms of the technology working and him getting to know the team. So it’s a relief to hear Jack didn’t find it stressful or difficult.

Full credit should go to him for sussing out the various systems so quickly (we have a LOT in the Media and PR Team), without needing to ask ‘sorry, can you just show me how to…’ too many times.

We’re just hoping everyone can meet in person soon and enjoy non-work chats over a cuppa!


It’s OK to… watch back-to-back episodes of MasterChef Australia

By Dr Erik Lithander, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Global Engagement)

The lockdown mantra that I’ve been applying to both my personal and working life for the past 12 months is that “good enough is enough”. As someone who has historically placed himself under a lot of pressure and applied a good dollop of self-doubt in the process, this has not been a straightforward transition. There is no question, however, that I’ve found “good enough” to be an unexpectedly satisfying philosophy.

Work-wise, my approach has simply been to celebrate the small victories, not beat myself up if my big complicated projects are not progressing as quickly as I would have liked, and be measured in my expectations of myself and others. Exactly the same applies to my personal life. For instance, rather than agonising about how little running, cycling or Joe Wicks I have the energy for, I’ve been celebrating the joy of walking. Precisely 3,650 km of it over the last 12 months, according to my exercise app. No wonder my morning lockdown stroll around Bishopston is starting to feel a bit repetitive. And in the evenings, rather than having wildly unrealistic aspirations to catch up on my reading of the Russian masters, I’ve been devoting my severely compromised attention span to streaming episode after episode of MasterChef Australia. Exotic, exciting and unapologetically upbeat, it fits perfectly with my “good enough” approach to life right now.

Something else that I’ve noticed in recent months is that when you’re working from home, it’s not only more difficult to separate your personal life from your work life: it’s also more difficult to separate your personal life from other people’s. Zoom and Teams bring us straight into each other’s homes, and our lives are compared and contrasted in a way that they would not necessarily be on campus.

I’m thinking for instance of the experiences of colleagues represented by the University of Bristol’s excellent Childlessness Network, which I have the privilege of being the Senior Champion for. It is of course interesting to gain insights into our colleagues’ interior décor styles, but when you’re an involuntarily childless person it’s impossible not to notice all those kids’ drawings stuck to fridges and pinboards; and it’s difficult not to occasionally wince at the lamentations about how inconvenient it is having the children home from school (while acknowledging that these are perfectly understandable, and that ‘inconvenient’ may sometimes be a drastic understatement for some). Similarly, those of us who complain about having to share our WiFi with working-from-home spouses, partners or housemates should be sensitive to the situation of colleagues who are involuntarily living alone, and who would be delighted to have someone to help make their internet connection occasionally unstable.

All of our pandemic and lockdown experiences are subtly different, but the one thing that they share is that we are all vulnerable right now, and we need to collectively acknowledge that. I certainly do. But I also take great comfort from knowing that, when I’ve shut down Zoom and Teams for the day, I still have seven unwatched seasons of MasterChef Australia to look forward to.


It’s Okay To… take baby steps

By Rhian Beattie, Staff Inclusion Adviser, Human Resources  

When I left for maternity leave, I didn’t expect I would be returning to work virtually with my place of work being my home. I returned during the COVID-19 pandemic and to a new post that was part-time (having previously worked full-time).

During my first few weeks in my new job, I had an induction that included virtually meeting my new team members, setting objectives and training. Particularly helpful was learning how to use Microsoft Teams due to this now being my main form of communication with colleagues. In the early stages of starting my new job, we had a team daily “check-in” via Microsoft Teams. I found this beneficial as it enabled me to get to know my new team better and gain a greater understanding of their job roles as we shared our daily “to-do” lists. It also provided the opportunity to check that everyone was okay, and for me as a new mum returning to work, being able to hear or see colleagues virtually was invaluable in preventing me feeling isolated.

My husband is also working from home, and like many, we’ve had to juggle having a toddler at home whilst working due to our childcare currently being disrupted. I must admit there have been times when I’ve felt guilty working when I’ve heard my daughter in the other room with my husband looking after her, asking for me. However, my manager is very supportive and allows me to be flexible over my working pattern when the need arises due to my caring responsibilities, which has been a great help.

Getting a divide between work and home/family life when working from home can be challenging. I have found having the same spot in my house where I set up my workspace helpful: I know that when I’m there, I’m in “work mode”. As I use the same room to have my evening meal with my family, I clear away my work stuff once finished to help switch off. As the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind”, although I know that’s easier said than done, but it helps me with trying to achieve a work-life balance, especially now that I work part-time.

During lunch, after work or on my non-working days there hasn’t been much else to do than going on walks, but I feel much better after having some fresh air. Although sometimes I wish I could do other activities with my daughter, she is very happy splashing in puddles and exploring nature.

I find stepping away from my screen for a couple of minutes and doing something else a few times a day is not only beneficial to me, but also to my job as it allows me time to think and creativity to happen.


It’s Okay To… find change difficult

By Julia Davies, Senior Change Manager, Change and Improvement Team

It’s also okay to find change exciting and energising. The fact is that as people, we respond to change in different ways depending on our unique experiences. How we respond to change at one time may be very different to how we respond the next time. Understanding our own response, and the responses of those around us, can help to bring people together and build energy for change.

Some people find it reassuring to look at the Kubler-Ross ‘change curve’. This demonstrates the emotions that people often experience with change; not everyone will experience all these emotions, and that is okay. Some people will spend a long time in one stage of the change curve and may even go backwards along the curve before going forward again, and that is also okay. What is important is understanding that a variety of reactions to change is normal and is part of a psychological process. If we can understand this in ourselves and in our colleagues, we can work effectively and supportively together.

It is also interesting to consider the difference between change and transition. Change is an external event, whereas transition is a psychological process that a person experiences when moving from one state to another. This process can be quick and easy for some, but others experience a challenging time letting go of the past and adjusting to whatever the required future state may be. For leaders and managers, it is important to recognise that people will be going through this stage of transitioning from the old to the new at different rates. Most will get there in the end but there are things that we can do to support people and help them to move from ‘a’ to ‘b’. The change team can help with this.

Whatever your reaction to change or the reactions of your colleagues, it’s  okay, and we have a change team here to support managers and leaders in understanding their team’s response to change and planning effectively. For more information and advice, follow our Yammer page ‘Changing Times’, visit our intranet site, or book a change clinic appointment with a qualified change manager.  We also have some top tips for individuals on coping with change.


It’s Okay To… surf the waves of life

By Fabienne Vailes, Senior Lecturer and French Language Director, Department of French

Last week was what I call a ‘bad hair week’. I’ll spare you the details, but it was literally one thing after the other, and as a result I felt really low and I really struggled to concentrate and focus. I ended the week saying: “I’m so over this lockdown 3.0”.

When I spoke with one of my colleagues, they told me: “It was me last week”.

Does this sound familiar? Do you also have ‘bad hair days’ or ‘bad hair weeks’?

I often think that life is like an ocean with its waves. Its highs and lows. We (sadly) can’t control what happens to us in life, we can’t control this ocean, but we can learn to excel in our way to surf with it. In every moment we have a choice. We can either go with the movement of the waves or decide to fight against it. Last week, I was fighting.

We can be surfers and by putting ourselves in this flexible state we can ride the wave more easily. When we are rigid on our board, we can’t go with the wave. But with inner flexibility, we can go with the movement with more ease and trust. Whatever the wave, we have a response-ability – the ability to choose our response: to go with the wave with flexibility and openness or to go against the current thus tiring ourselves.

We can also be kind to ourselves and remember not to compare ourselves to the other surfers in the water. Some of them will be experts effortlessly gliding and surfing the water. Others may appear to be having a fantastic time when we’re not. But just like my colleague did the week before, they too might have been ‘under the water’, holding their breath moments before or paddling along waiting patiently for the next wave.

It’s so easy to believe that the ocean and the waves are better for others, particularly with social media and its highlight reels. But is that true? Are we focusing too much on the movement of the waves and not enough on the ocean called life?

If so, next time we see others ‘surfing’ the wave of life, looking like they’re having a wonderful time, we can remind ourselves that the wave is not permanent. This is true for all of us. It’s constant change and impermanence.

When this lockdown 3.0 finally comes to an end, we might start riding a different wave of ‘new normal’. But whatever the ocean throws at us next, we can bear in mind that we have a choice and that we can allow ourselves to surf the waves of life much more.