It’s Okay To… be real

By Erin Dooley, Research Associate, Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering

I’ve been enjoying this blog, and I think it’s such a good idea. It has been very thought-provoking, and I’ve been using ‘It’s okay’ just as a mantra when things don’t seem to go right. Not being much of a blog writer, I wrote a poem. I do think that maybe some ‘It’s okay’ poems and artwork from other members of staff would be great, especially since we’re coming up to one year of COVID, and I think that a lot of colleagues are more and more reflective.

It’s okay to rise and fall like the new circadian rhythm, beat, beat,
banging to a totally different drum

It’s okay to preen and pat that unruly coif, just at the front, appeasing the webcam gods,
hair washed last Tuesday (or maybe it was Monday?); a hairband, a hat, the filter of a sullen cat

It’s okay to shed a tear, mourn the lost year, the fear,
the fear of dying alone or forever wed to your mobile phone

It’s okay to skip a meal, or maybe eat more, at the table, off the floor,
imbibe before the flickering box, in greying pants and threadbare socks

It’s okay to let your polish chip, your morale to dip,
to love that one long hair growing above your lip

It’s okay to take comfort in unruly brows and frequent scowls,
avoid the outdoor space and crowds

It’s okay to find a different self, beneath the mask, to question all and ask, ask, ask ‘Why?’

And be sure to reply ‘It’s okay’.


It’s Okay To… ask for help

By Alicia O’Grady, Director of External Relations

I think it’s true to say that a lot of us are wired to avoid asking for help. There can be several reasons: perhaps we feel that there’s somebody worse off who needs the help more; and our culture in general can make us feel that asking for help is perceived as a sign of weakness.

In fact the opposite is true, because asking for help can be such a hard thing to do. It can also be a massive relief.

As staff members at the University, we’re really fortunate to be able to seek help via the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). It’s important to know that you can use the EAP for a whole range of things including independent financial or legal advice, and of course, wellbeing and mental health support.

I took advantage of the EAP following the death of a family member. I realised that circumstances had left me at less than my best, and it was great to be able to offload to somebody who wasn’t involved. Also, when you’re dealing with emotional issues, it’s hard to step back and be objective, and I felt I needed a conversation to help give me some perspective.

Getting that perspective can help you reframe a situation in a way that makes it easier to cope, and can better equip you to help any other people who might be involved. In my case, we discussed some tools and techniques to help me tackle some difficult conversations with family members over practical matters. I came away with some good points, and some ideas that were useful in dealing with family tensions that, naturally, were worsened by everybody’s grief.

All of this enabled me to say to myself: ‘Okay, I’m not going crazy, and I can deal with this.’ That’s an incredibly useful thing.

Needless to say, you can find valuable help in a number of places; many of them are listed on a page on SharePoint. From my own experience, I can highly recommend the EAP. It gives you free, easy access to professional, expert advice and opinion, either online or on the phone.

It’s easy to be sceptical and to think: ‘Surely I should be smart enough to figure this out for myself.’ But just having someone to listen can do more good than you might expect. And it never hurts to get an external opinion; whether you take the advice or not is up to you.

Not only is asking for help okay, it’s actually one of the smartest things you can do.


It’s Okay To… be human

By Natalie Read, Counsellor at the Student Counselling Service

Wanting to do well and achieve success is an understandable desire, but when does this become unhelpful or even unhealthy?

When your expectations are about being superhuman by imagining it’s possible to be happy and productive all the time or successful in every project, your wellbeing can be negatively affected. Not meeting these high expectations can lead to low mood and frustration as well as adding stress and anxiety about the perceived consequences. You may even feel that you’ve failed in some way, adding a further cycle of negative thoughts and feelings.

To compensate, you may develop strategies such as perfectionism, worrying, overworking, avoidance or people-pleasing. Whilst well intended, these strategies are not only ineffective (as it’s not possible to control life or avoid feelings indefinitely), they also come with unhelpful side-effects.

Instead, working towards a more realistic expectation of humanness can lead to greater happiness, self-confidence and success. Coming to terms with who you are and the realities of life – that’s being human, with unique strengths and also development needs.

There’s a difference between knowing this and putting it into practice, so here are some principles to help.

Have expectations which reflect the flow of life. Like the weather, life is naturally full of ups and downs. No one is immune to life’s challenges or facing difficult emotions. You can’t avoid these, but you can influence the size of the “down”. Every time you judge yourself, or blame yourself for other people coping better, or ignore your feelings, you create additional layers of emotion on top of what you’re already experiencing. Each additional layer makes the “down” more difficult to overcome.

If instead you acknowledge that, despite appearances, everyone faces difficulties from time to time, you can navigate the “down” more easily as you don’t have those extra feelings of guilt and shame to deal with. Acknowledging that makes life easier, though it’s not easy!

This is especially relevant now, when we’re facing increasing complexity and uncertainty in so many ways. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or low, try putting easier, more routine tasks, and tasks that match your strengths, into your day. Lower your expectations of yourself, practice more self-care and self-compassion than normal, find an outlet for your emotions and try not to add more layers of judgement to the billing.

Re-evaluate success. By learning to measure yourself by your intentions and your effort rather than outcomes or responses, you take back control of how you define success. Not expecting positive results all the time and remembering that actually you grow and learn the most as a result of difficulties and challenges can prevent you from feeling a failure. When something doesn’t go well, acknowledge that it could be something to learn from or is helping you towards a happier or more successful outcome in the long run.

These strategies are relevant to both professional and personal circumstances. Try to make your coping strategies more conscious, then review their impact and what decide what could make them even more effective. What could help you see yourself as more human, not superhuman?

Natalie Read is the author of Being Human – the path to self-acceptance, resilience and happiness.


It’s Okay To… listen in

By Will Boardman, Teaching Technician, School of Anatomy

I must begin by confessing that I’m probably more fortunate than most under current conditions. I’m still able to come to work and do a job. That job has changed a lot, but we’re still providing support to practical classes for the medical and vet students.

Being able to leave the house and keep busy has been very important for my mood and mental health. I am also very fortunate not to be living alone, and I know that many people have neither of these advantages. I completely empathise with them and the feelings of being trapped and isolated that they may well be experiencing.

So I feel slightly guilty about expressing any grievances over how the pandemic has inconvenienced me. But I just really miss the small things that were once taken for granted: visiting friends and family, eating in a restaurant, getting my hair cut, having a cold pint of beer in a pub. And my work on campus now has its own kind of isolation: little or no interaction with students or colleagues. I miss conversations – short or long, trivial or serious.

That’s probably why I found myself listening to more podcasts than usual. The podcast format is great for longer conversations than you find on the radio, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Everyone has their own favourites; a couple of mine are Happy Place and The Magic Sponge.

Recently I started to think how great it would be to create a podcast myself – one that would help others during these strange times.

Immediately, I wrote myself off. What do I know about creating a podcast? Where would I even start? But when I mentioned these ponderings to my wife, she gave me the confidence boost and supportive belief to give it a go. I did some research and attended a couple of webinars on starting a podcast, and suddenly it started to feel achievable.

Getting my technician colleague Charlie on board was a big positive for me. Not only because most projects are less intimidating when you’re not alone, but also because Charlie is genuinely fascinated by mental health and wellbeing and has far greater knowledge on the subject than I do.

So we took a deep breath and went for it!

We had positive feedback for the first episode, and having recently recorded the second, with the fantastic Allison McRitchie, I’m so pleased that I overcame my own doubts.

If you’re not familiar with the podcast world, why not try it? You can find yourself listening in on some fascinating – and sometimes funny – conversations. Especially in current circumstances, podcasts can be a way of hearing some quality chat if you’re missing it in real life. Of course, we’d be delighted if you felt like checking out ours!

The Technical Healing podcast is available on Apple podcasts and Spotify.


It’s Okay To… disconnect – and reconnect

By Professor Sarah Purdy, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Student Experience)  

This morning I spoke with a colleague who shared that today wasn’t a good day. I was pleased they felt able to say something and we talked about how things are hard right now and what might help.

I’ve found working from home especially difficult when things at work are challenging. Like everyone, I’m used to talking things over with colleagues, sharing the burden and getting – and offering – other points of view.

In lockdown, I’ve been missing the things I normally do to unwind and recharge my batteries; things like meeting friends for coffee or lunch, or going for walks in the country or along the coast.

I also work as a GP in the city, and with that hat on, I’m all too aware of the loneliness that a lot of people are feeling, along with anxiety about the uncertainty, their own health and that of loved ones, financial worries and what the future holds.

Often all I can do is listen and try and encourage people to disconnect from the news and media for a while and to reconnect with someone else, and with nature. Both can be really helpful.

Many of us have found ourselves drifting out of touch with friends – it’s something that can happen at the best of times, which these times most certainly aren’t. So, try phoning someone you haven’t spoken to in a while; your call may be the only real conversation they (and you) have that day. Maybe talk about how you feel and ask them how they are. Just asking and listening is very powerful.

So that would be my tip: disconnect and reconnect. Of course small actions like these won’t work miracles, but they really can make a difference – both to you and to the people you reconnect with.


It’s Okay To… stare out of the window

By Bryony Enright, Postgraduate Faculty Employability Consultant, Careers Service

I recently took part in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. This happens once a year during January and involves individuals, couples and families all over the UK watching the birds in their garden or from their window for an hour. The idea is to count the birds you see and enter how many of what you saw on the RSPB website. It provides important data for conservation and species numbers within the UK.

I took part for an hour one Saturday when my son was napping. I sat with a coffee and some old binoculars and watched the starlings, wood pigeons and – would you believe it – a blackcap (!) for a blissful hour. It was wonderful. It was the calmest and most at peace I’ve felt for as long as I can remember. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I stopped and took a whole hour for myself to do something other than watch TV.

I was so affected by the positive impact this hour staring out of the window had on the rest of my weekend that I’ve started embracing more staring out of the window during my working week. I desperately feel the need to look away from the screen, to switch off and embrace the quiet. Life with a toddler is noisy! I’ve brought my binoculars upstairs and they sit next to me on my desk. I can see the top of a hawthorn from my spare bedroom where I work. There is currently a crow on next door’s roof and a couple of sparrows hopping about (not everyday can be a blackcap day). I’ve also started to buy more and more elaborate bird feed to try and encourage different species.

I used to feel guilty for drifting off during working from home, losing concentration and staring out of the window, but now I embrace this mindful practice as an important way to calm my frazzled brain. I often end a Zoom meeting with a good ten minutes staring out of the window. I plan on taking another hour for myself this weekend to look at the birds and reconnect with some inner peacefulness.


It’s Okay To… change your approach

By John Halliwell, Impact Development Manager, Faculty of Health Sciences 

One of the many things that I found difficult in the previous two lockdowns was a quite specific product of home schooling: having to choose between whose work meeting was more important – mine or my wife’s.

Judging the relative importance of your career is not a helpful conversation to have with your partner. This put more strain on an already tricky domestic situation, so this time round I am getting better at avoiding that, simply by limiting meetings, by occupying the kids so that we can both work, and by being really conscious and explicit about that balance.

Last time round I got it wrong, and worked far too hard – I’m doing better this time round.

In terms of managing my calendar I’ve made it clear that I don’t have capacity for more than four hours of meetings a day. I keep 12 – 2 pm clear every day so that I can carve out some time for myself and the family.

We’re all finding it hard, whatever the context we’re operating in, and for me guilt was the dominant emotion in previous lockdowns, but I feel like I’m learning, and I’m not feeling as guilty.

Everyone approaches this differently, but if I can get an hour of focused home schooling done every weekday, then that’s enough for now.


It’s Okay To… ask twice

By Dr Louisa Slingsby, Teaching Fellow in Bristol Veterinary School and Mental Health Champion

#AskTwice forms part of the ‘Time to Change’ campaign. If you reach out to someone who you suspect is suffering or struggling and they say that they’re fine, reach out again.

Sometimes we worry that reaching out might upset or annoy the person we have reached out to. This might stop us from a welcome act of kindness.

Let me tell you my recent story.

Like many, I am feeling anxious, stressed, overworked, and ground down by the continual uncertainty and change. Last week I was starting to tip downwards, and this was picked up by a colleague who asked by email if I was okay.

I said I was fine, but I wasn’t.

This week started with yet another piece of COVID-related fire-fighting that was the final straw. The same colleague emailed again to ask if I was fine. This time, I thought for a moment and then replied ‘no’.

Within minutes this person had rung me on my personal mobile and opened with the words ‘I am ringing as a friend’ (they are also in a position of authority in my school). We had a short chat; I had a little cry. My goodness, that helped. Just knowing that someone had given the time to hear me made me feel supported and cared for.

So next time you reach out to someone and they say they are fine, give it some time – and then ask again.


It’s Okay To… FEEL

By Dr Keith Beasley, Postgraduate Senior Admissions Administrator, School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies 

This pandemic, the resulting lockdowns, and the impact of both on how we all live at the moment, are too big to brush under the carpet and ignore. It will affect us – it already is affecting us – on so many levels. And It’s Okay To… have strong and painful feelings about it.

Actually, it has always been okay to have feelings about things.

It has always been okay to talk about these feelings and our emotional responses to the events happening around us. But how many of us do talk about it – particularly while at work?

It’s Okay To… feel more and think less.

I think that if we are to get through this, we have to get out more.

And not just physically – although our daily allowed exercise is also essential – but mentally and emotionally. We have to get out of our own thinking heads more often. We need to feel, sense and connect on an emotional level, be that with nature, with ourselves or with our colleagues.

Our whole working lives so far have been about thinking things through, reasoning, figuring out issues, whether professionally or academically. It’s not easy for many of us to disconnect from the rational thinking side of ourselves!

The breakthrough in my own mental health challenges came when I first realised that I think too much. Which for me was a bit like admitting that I have an addiction! We are addicted to thinking.

Managers, academics and administrators pride themselves on being objective, and not being swayed by emotional influences. But in reality, we are human beings who both think and feel, aren’t we?

It’s not just okay to talk about our feelings, it’s essential for our wellbeing.

Why have mindfulness, meditation and similar practices been so effective and so appreciated in recent years? I would suggest it is because they encourage and enable us to get out of our heads for a short while.

Doing something creative or connecting with nature achieves the same thing. Doing these things will help us to establish a more natural balance between thinking and feeling, and I would encourage you to indulge in these activities more frequently.

For deeper, more long-term benefits, it also helps if we can admit: ‘I think too much’. And to understand that It’s Okay To … think less and feel more.


It’s okay to … have a meeting-free day

Roseanna Cross and Kathy Purdy, School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine 



In the Faculty of Life Sciences, a common complaint from staff was the overwhelming number of meetings that they were expected to attend. This was a problem even before the pandemic, but it got worse when online meetings took over. It was true of University, Faculty, School and group/team meetings, as well as one-to-ones with staff, and all the teaching commitments academic staff have, too.

The Faculty was keen to address the issue by introducing a day when no Faculty or School meetings took place, and all Schools were asked which day would fit in best for this. In the School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine we had already reviewed our committee schedule to reduce the number and length of meetings wherever we could, and we had trialled a year of ‘meeting-free Fridays’, where we avoided admin / committee meetings on Fridays wherever possible. We also ensured that no committee meetings took place in school holidays or outside the hours of 10 am – 4 pm, to help staff with caring responsibilities.

This meant that staff could carve out a space in their diaries for valuable thinking time, and it was then up to individual Research Groups or Admin Teams to decide if they wanted to use this ‘free’ day to focus on research or specific project work. Since 2020, the Faculty has joined ‘meeting-free Fridays’, which has further reduced the meeting load on Fridays (though teaching commitments can still pop up).

The impact of these initiatives has been that many staff have taken the option to block out their calendar on Fridays as a ‘meeting-free day’ and are able to benefit from the opportunity to have some much-needed focus time without the interruptions of meetings. Positive feedback from staff has been that they really appreciate being able to sink their teeth into a meaty piece of work without being interrupted, and they feel less stressed in the week because they know they can catch up on Friday.

The Faculty has also encouraged meetings that were previously booked for an hour or more to be reduced by 10 mins (to 50 minutes, or 1hr 20 minutes) so staff can have a break from the screen, go to the loo or grab a coffee, or so they can catch up on emails or follow up on actions resulting from the previous meeting.

We’re keen to look at other ways to improve the wellbeing of our colleagues on an ongoing basis and are always open to suggestions.