When I led the process of consultation to develop our EDI strategic delivery plan, one of the messages that was most strongly stated from colleagues was that our approach to EDI needed to go over and above the regulatory requirements as stated in the 2010 Equalities Act. And one of the main factors which was raised was the need for the University to support those with care responsibilities. The impact of Covid-19 has brought this importance of this commitment to the fore.
Whatever your personal circumstances, the sudden nature of the change in work and study environment, alongside the extremely concerning global societal and economic situation, has placed significant pressures and stress on us all. It has been truly inspiring to see how members of the University community have responded to this so positively and collectively. However, we are now also seeing significant differences in the impact that individuals and teams are experiencing in both the workload that they are currently facing, as well as their needs to balance personal family care responsibilities and work demands. This presents a real challenge for many of us – we all want to do our very best in all aspects of our life and work.
The most important thing that we can all do right now is to take care of ourselves, our families and our friends. What this means for different people will vary significantly. It might mean having to prioritise hands-on childcare, which directly clashes with the time needed to complete work. It might mean having to go to the supermarket during the day to collect groceries, or to deliver them to friends or family members in need. It might mean that we are lonely, and miss the day to day contact and activity that comes with a day studying or working, but that, ironically, we actually have more time available to work than we had before, and are finally able to complete those tasks that we have been waiting to tackle for ages. And it almost certainly means changing our plans in a more disruptive way than we have ever experienced before.
There are no easy answers which will help everyone in the same way, but there has been a lot of work that has been done by colleagues around the University in the past week which have aimed to help people, no matter what situation they might find themselves in. For individuals with care responsibilities, the most important message is to do your best, and be honest with yourselves and others about what is realistic for you to achieve. If you are struggling with what to prioritise, or feel that you cannot achieve all the tasks that you need to, please do discuss this as soon as possible with colleagues and your line manager, to ensure you have as much support as possible in planning your work over the coming weeks and months so that you are able to prioritise your own and your family’s health and wellbeing. Everyone understands how difficult things are at the moment, and sometimes we ourselves struggle to work out what the most important things to prioritise now are, and what can be left until a later date. Talking it through with others can really help. The team in Human Resources have put together a very helpful set of materials to support staff wellbeing. Our support and wellbeing officers are available to talk through challenges balancing care responsibilities that our students may be facing, to ensure they have the best possible support. It can also be really helpful to become a member of one of our staff and student networks – these provide an informal setting to share issues you are facing, and we are making sure that our networks are able to feed in any issues that colleagues are facing.
As managers, tutors and supervisors, it is also very difficult to know how best to support our colleagues and students who are working to balance care responsibilities and work. Each family’s situation is different, and we can occasionally assume that the way we coped with a situation will also be the way that others should cope. But this might not be the case, and a solution that works for one person, might not be appropriate for another. The best approach therefore is to ensure that we are reinforcing a culture which enables people to raise any concerns that they have. Then, when those concerns have been raised, to ensure that we listen to those within your team who raise concern, to emphasise that we understand how difficult things are, and to work with them to develop the best possible response which works for them, and which works for their team. After Easter there will be a series of events and webinars which are particularly aimed at supporting managers through the impact of Covid-19, which aim to help managers tackle these and other difficult challenges we are facing.
The impact of Covid-19 is beyond anything we have previously experienced, and will be felt within the Higher Education sector for many years. We recognise this, and will be actively considering the most appropriate ways to capture and understand the impact of this change in circumstances on individuals’ careers and activities. As we return after Easter, there will be a hope that we can return to something that feels a bit more like ‘business as usual’, but we know that this ever-changing situation can never be considered to be business as usual. Our productivity will of course continue to be affected, and we need to build in more time to support each other and take care of ourselves. We will continue to reassure colleagues that we are all having to adapt our expectations and activities in response to this, and welcome continued discussion about how best to manage in these unprecedented times.
Take care all.
Professor Sarah Sharples
Pro Vice-Chancellor for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and People
8 April 2020