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Safeguarding your mental health is vital in the age of crisis - Stuart Rimmer

26 January 2023

This blog is part of the ETF leadership mental health and wellbeing programme. This programme is delivered by Association of Colleges, commissioned by the Education and Training Foundation on behalf of the Department for Education. Find out more here.

Stuart Rimmer, Chief Executive, East Coast College

The nation remains in a state of perma-crisis with pressure and stress. In the 2022 Workplace Health Report, around a third of people report moderate to high stress. The Mental Health Foundation places 74 per cent of adults feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope in the last year. This is acute in public services and also arguably driving resulting personal crises in our staff.

For FE leaders this raises, in some cases, existential questions as to whether it is even possible to lead a college healthily under these conditions. What might our leadership response be?

David Rock in a recent Harvard Business Review considered the concept of “quiet quitting” stating “in the face of persistent and inescapable stressors people often respond by giving up. When nothing is in your control why event try?”
Energy prices, inflation, government instability, staff shortages, forward projections bleak, funding rates declining in real terms, staff rightly demanding more pay but no facilities to achieve this are on my desk currently. All this attached to the tail of covid, far from finished in terms of staff absence or impact on students learning and social conditions.

The elements that compound distress are far from exclusively being the conditions within a college but the inescapable externalities in life outside which layer on the pressure. These have become harder to leave at the college gate. The space between work and home finally evaporated in covid.

In the half term running into this Christmas, my father died. It had a huge emotional and physical impact on me in this period. It came at the end of a long term of high stress which compounded the fear, anxiety and chronic tiredness. All the time the day job continued with union discussions on pay, high challenge board meetings and problematic financial projections foregrounded.

This time taught me so much. My leading expertise in distress and positive coping strategies includes cognitive reframing, daily meditation, stoicism, support of friends and family and my Buddhist faith all helped, but were frankly insufficient. I was, as author Ruby Wax would put it, “frazzled”. When pressure stays high, with little time to rest, there is insufficient space in “the stress bucket”, as expressed by Babington, to respond to temporary family crisis and perma-crisis of FE. I lurched into the Christmas break holding the edge with narrow grasp.

My dad held simple yet endless wisdom always asking how work was, but frankly didn’t really understand the job (not sure I fully do anymore) and my reply was “I’ve got a busy couple of months and then it should ease”…. He once told me that I had been saying this for over ten years.

Looking forward, there is little evidence that the current perma-crisis is likely to ease in its reach or longevity. It begs the question are we now leading in a state of hopelessness? If you spoke to members of my senior team they’d tell you that I have (cruelly) banned the word “hope” for many years; feeling that it is a refuge or pre-empting failure-it is passive and without strategy or tactic to influence outcome. But there is query as to whether we should even hold out for hope at all. The positive psychologist Martin Seligman describes in The Hope Circuit “Whether or not we have hope depends on two dimensions of our explanatory style; pervasiveness and permeance”.

The literature also points to two types of pressure challenge pressure and hinderance pressures but we can no longer proactively remove hinderance pressures as easily as once we could. Leaders may make best efforts but there is a negative psychological and mental impact of constantly not being good enough. A challenge in leadership roles is the acceptance we are making suboptimal decisions daily. It is the constant selection of the “least worst” option. None of us wish to do this. There is a widening gap in discussions with staff I’ve noticed between agreeing what we should do and what we can or will do.

Worth consideration is that perma-crisis really means permanent distress, permanent fatigue, permanently working with teams and staff under high pressure, but still needing results. I feel this is new territory in extremis.

I do worry about people stepping into leadership posts and whether new senior leaders are equipped with the right, or enough, skills. I have been a college principal for almost a decade. My skills and behaviours around coping with distress are both refined and experienced, but I still remain vulnerable. The long-term health toll I am really starting to question. With another ten years in my career to go it feels not currently possible or desirable. We must try harder to remove pressure or the conclusion must be to remove yourself from the sector – there is limited satisfaction in a sector where it’s impossible to do a “good job”. I wonder how many colleagues are considering this?

Like many leaders, my biggest mental weakness is that I carry the mood of others. Colleges don’t just have cultures, but I think they hold an emotional resonance. A consciousness, a mood of their own. You can feel it in corridors and meetings. When the college is happy and calm, then I’m happy. When the college feels in a place of distress, then I follow. It flows from a place of care and whilst illogical, it is true to me and many others I speak to.

I’ve called before for us to explore and identify the “cost of leadership in FE”. There is a distinct difference between distress, pressure and burnout. To what extent are many leaders drifting between these categories and with what frequency? My hypothesis is that many leaders are experiencing more frequently physical and cognitive distortions that come with high stress and burnout symptoms. We are now more used to operating with neurobiological states of alertness. We may not be aware what our real stress levels are at all. I am leading some research on this now.

But if I temporarily permit the use of the word “hope”, then what hope might we hold? Anxiety happens, according to a therapist I once worked with, when our perception on our personal capacity to cope is outweighed by our perception of the situation. As a sector, the people who work in FE are hugely resilient (if sometimes to our detriment). The sense of “team”, whilst in parts fractured, remains strong. We can use the stoic principles of acceptance to understand our locus of control, focus our attention on shaping what we can change and illicit small victories daily in colleges. We can marshal an urgent sense of belonging whilst understanding we really cannot change much of what is now happening in our world.

We can better utilise concepts of rest and recuperation, perhaps creating proactive downtime within the day or week and certainly out of term time. This might help relieve some of the physical symptoms of working under distress and chronic tiredness I witness. We can restrict our access to the negative news cycles both in the outside world and in our sector. This creates a sense of helplessness and at times, more frequently anger. This doomscrolling has been proven to have a significant negative psycho-physiological response. Perhaps we can channel all the anger in our sector to push for a systemic change?

Like all leaders in sector we expect it to be hard. Really hard. But it must be possible without compromising our mental and physical health. In a perma-crisis, the reality of distress is with us and must be proactively addressed on an individual, institutional and sector level. We cannot solve this completely but the best we might attain is the creation of a much better and happier balance.

Dad always said that the key to success was ensuring we took steps to “get on and stay on an even keel”. Despite him never leading a team, it remains the best leadership advice I know, fitting for our times and providing the opportunity to rebalance and perhaps lead in hope.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC, NCFE, or ETF.