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Why I provided my teaching staff with subsidised counselling support - Gabriella McCormack

02 March 2023

Is it just me, or was returning back to work after the pandemic and the lockdowns akin to returning to an alternate universe? Things looked familiar and felt familiar, and yet the landscape was totally different.

To set the scene, I work within a vibrant training school that delivers apprenticeships in hairdressing and barbering, a business that has gone from strength to strength for over 40 years. As a small business our team was incredibly close, which made it extraordinarily difficult to see colleagues/ friends I have known for years return to work with various sets of challenges, priorities, and many struggling with their mental health.

Hairdressing is a fantastic industry to work, particularly because of the people it attracts- extremely vivacious, creative people. It was clear that some of my colleagues struggled to find their “new normal” after the pandemic, while dealing with challenges they had never experienced before. These included, for example, anxiety standing in front of the classroom, imposter syndrome, or fear of coming into the city centre location, where we are situated. Some colleagues decided to change career to pursue a better work life balance outside of the challenging FE sector. This left leaders with the difficult task of managing a nervous and depleted team, whilst scrambling to recruit during a national teacher shortage.

Anyone who runs a business or manages a team will know just how much of a challenge it’s been to support the business needs through the return from Covid, and the challenging state of the economy. This alone would be one of the most difficult challenges that most people face within their careers. However, a business is nothing without the team that supports it. Recognising the changing needs of staff and the rise in metal health challenges, we trained additional staff in mental health first aid and improved mental health literacy to ensure all staff could recognise changes to mental health in themselves and others. However, this just didn’t feel like it was enough to make a real impact.

I feel a turning point for us was the decision to accept that some of the problems that staff were facing couldn’t simply be solved by a reasonable adjustment at work. In certain cases, it was clear that some staff would benefit from professional support. Knowing the mental health services were overrun with requests, we offered staff the option to have a subsidised session with a counsellor to talk through problems that they may be facing in their lives. In order to remove any stigma or fear that staff may have had around seeking help, I made the decision that as the leader of the education team, I would publicly share that I was taking the company up on their offer and pursue some support. It is my opinion that seeking support for mental health should be viewed as going to the gym, rather than taking medicine. People go to the gym because they want to stay well, not because they are unwell. Recognising signs early on has been a key priority, early intervention or even prevention is always better than cure.

In the face of such uncertainty within the FE sector, staff require a sense of stability to reduce their anxiety and allow them to sleep at night. However, this places increasing pressures upon the those in charge; feeling the responsibility now more than ever to be an “aspirational leader”. In such an unstable market place, that job becomes harder and harder. I’ve often found myself feeling as though I need to play the part of everyone’s biggest cheerleader and supporter, while still under the seemingly insurmountable pressure to pick up broken parts of a business that Covid smashed apart. I have to say in the spirit of being totally vulnerable that talking to someone was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Nothing causes stress or anxiety more than feeling you’re out of control. The uncertainty of the FE budgets, making it impossible to forward plan.

Teaching attracts people who strive for perfection to help others, and this sometimes places a huge amount of emotional stress upon their shoulders. Setting a culture where staff are allowed to accept that perfection cannot exist 100 per cent of the time, particularly not in the current challenging landscape, has alleviated the pressure. Instead, it is being replaced with mindful appreciation of everyone who is doing their best to support learners, many of whom come from deprived backgrounds and face many barriers and challenges.

The focus of support has always been upon the person seeking it, and that is quite right, however, I think some light needs to be shone upon the unsung heroes within the FE sector that absorb all that emotional pressure listening to those in need and supporting them to the best of their abilities. The amount of emotional regulation and EQ that it requires to sit and listen to another person’s struggles is quite significant. Even when you have done your best, I often find myself wracked with self-doubt replaying what has been said and how I could have phrased things differently or if I could have articulated something better. Sharing these feelings with others has helped introduce a buddy system where leaders or designated people who are affected by the amount of emotional pressure they have to absorb from others can seek help from their “buddy” within the organisation.

Some days, the job seems impossible. It feels like you are being pulled in a million directions, desperately wanting to support and help staff and a team who look to you for guidance, whilst having to manage business needs and priorities - with staff requesting constant reasonable adjustments to their workload or working hours, which are often in direct conflict with the best interest of your students, budgets or placing increased strain on the other members of staff. The FE sector is measured by constantly moving goalposts of ever-increasing expectations on outcomes/ standards funded by infinitely tight budgets. Managing a team who are struggling more than ever to support learners while facing their own anxieties and a diverse range of problems outside of work, made worse by the cost-of-living crisis, the pressure is well and truly on. However, as a leader within the FE sector we are expected to spin every plate and balance every book.

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