By Sarah Proctor- Thompson, April 2020
Over the last few weeks I have been caught, suspended, and at times paralysed, between the two stark realisations that: I am incredibly privileged to be able to continue the work of teaching and research online as we go into full lock down. After all, I will be paid my full salary, I have the right technological set-up at home and I can continue to undertake meaningful work that I am passionate about.
But that also: I am absolutely struggling to continue the work of teaching and research online. My already full pre-lockdown workload has not diminished. Indeed it has increased through ever-changing institutional mandates, crisis response meetings, learning of new digital tools and increasing my support for struggling students and colleagues.
Add to this my care and teaching of two primary aged kids who are at home for 100% of the time and, well… you get my drift…something has got to give.
Perhaps in response to such tensions, there have been a number of pieces in published and social media in the last few days that have reminded those of us who work in the tertiary education sector to give ourselves a break. We are encouraged to prioritise our family and homelife needs, to take time to make the mental shift to the new conditions, and to expect lower productivity as we adjust.
These tips are good reminders for our committed and dedicated members and they should be shared widely. But frankly, these don’t go far enough.
Amidst our rush to respond in a productive way for our students, colleagues and institutions, we may have forgotten that we are not starting from safe or stable ground.
For a number of years the Tertiary Education Union has tracked the rising workloads, mounting stress and diminishing satisfaction for workers in the New Zealand tertiary education sector. It is not just the last few weeks that tertiary education staff have struggled with undertaking unsustainable and undervalued work or felt physically and socially distant from the key decision-making in their workplaces!
These tips are good reminders and they should be shared widely. But frankly, these don’t go far enough.
So rather than providing another ‘how to guide’ about things we all should and shouldn’t do to keep ourselves well, I thought I would present three ‘top tips’ for educational institutions for ensuring that they are supporting the health and well-being or their staff and building a sustainable response to the situation we now find ourselves in.
‘Top tips for ensuring institutional health during the lock-down and beyond’:
1) Ensure staff at all levels are involved in collaborative and shared decision-making processes when setting short-term, medium-term and long-term responses to COVID-19. Educators, learning support staff, technical support staff and many other student-facing staff groups are those with the expertise to predict the student outcomes of planned new measures or practices. Listen to them.
2) Prioritise the maintenance of high quality teaching and learning over and above other operational matters in decision-making. Now is the time to be explicitly focussed on the sector’s ‘reason for being’ as you set your strategic approach forward. That means that institutions need to return to an explicit and self-consciously values-based approach.
3) Review workloads so that they are feasible. In a crisis situation in which people are sent home to work, the institution should not make assumptions about the working environment of their staff. Some of my previous research on working from home (WFH) in post-earthquake Christchurch demonstrated the various factors shaping worker outcomes in a crisis situation. Put simply, some staff will be ready to work at full capacity much sooner than others. Workloads should be set on a on a case-by-case basis.
Oh, and for those institutions out there reading this, don’t forget to build in some quiet reflective personal time each day to allow yourself to adjust to the new collaborative, professional and healthy workplace you are helping to create.
Acknowledgement: This piece originally appeared in the TEU Newsletter (7 April 2020).
About the Author
Sarah Proctor-Thomson is New Zealand Tertiary Education Union women’s vice president and a Research Associate in the School of Management at Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand). She is the co-author of the State of the Public Tertiary Education Sector Survey (2019), and of research looking into disruptions in the nature of work caused by natural disasters.