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.
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.