Support the Mental Health of Staff in Colleges

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2022 Local Government Service Group Conference
15 February 2022

Conference notes that mental health problems have been brought to the fore over the course of the pandemic. The Health and Safety Executive defines a mental health problem as “The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them”.

According to the TUC, 70% of union safety reps report stress as a top workplace concern; finding that the education sector has significantly higher than average rates of stress. The causes are manifold; workload, cuts to staffing numbers, long working hours, and constant organisational change. Additionally, stakeholders know that there is a crisis to students’ mental health that has a knock-on effect for the staff who need to help and support them. The significant cuts to the funding of further education since 2009 mean that staff working in the sector know better than many the stress of annual restructures and attendant threats to jobs. When coupled with pay cuts the stress only increases.

The UNISON 2021 mental health in colleges survey revealed that anxiety in the sector increased six-fold over the course of the pandemic, from 7% prior to March 2020 to 41% after the last lockdown. Staff self-reporting as ‘somewhat anxious’ increased from 36% to 80%. Anxiety over workload increased 5-fold over the course of the pandemic and a quarter of staff expressed fear they could lose their job. Many of these concerns were realised when restructures began once again in the summer term.

Conference notes that mental health is an equality issue. The same survey revealed that slightly more women than men felt very anxious at the beginning of the 2020 (7%:6% respectively) with the gap widening over the course of the pandemic (43%:36% respectively). Younger members were significantly more anxious (90%) and worryingly, were also less likely to use any support services offered by employers. They only reported using services that remained confidential whilst also feeling they needed more support. Many respondents reported that managers did not have awareness of, or make the space for, mental health to be discussed and that support offered is just a ‘box-ticking exercise’.

Governments across the UK are dipping their toes in the water of supporting staff mental health. The Welsh government is providing £50m of funding for a wellbeing project with the joint trade unions and the employers. In Scotland the pay claim called for 2 mental health days for staff. In England the DfE Mental Health Charter has been signed up to by UNISON.

But this is not enough. The conference calls on the Service Group Executive to:

1)Develop resources to signpost staff in the direction of mental health resources;

2)Work with outside organisations such as the Charlie Waller Trust to develop resources;

3)Ensure that mental health workshops and resources are available at all FE events;

4)Provide resources to support reps to work with employers on mental health policies;

5)Set up a peer-to-peer support group for staff reps;

6)Lobby governments of all 4 nations for better support of mental health in colleges;

7)Campaign for fully-funded professional counselling services in colleges.