Large version of the headshot for education officer Michael Surr

nasen - Time to Pause and Reflect

17 May 2021|09:51

It seems somewhat ‘old hat’ now to mention that the past year (and longer) was difficult for us all in many ways. It is important however that we don’t lose sight of this and become immune to the fact of just how challenging it was and still is: our home and work lives have undergone major disruption, contact with friends, family and colleagues has been limited, enforced isolation periods were challenging on a personal and professional level; dealing with new ways of working, juggling working from home and home schooling; anxiety about ‘the virus’, coping with illness, and in too many cases bereavements, caused by the virus.

Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week and although the aim of the week is to encourage a particular focus on mental health, this focus should not be limited to one week each year. It does provide a good opportunity though to pause to properly reflect on everything we have been through and to think about its effect on us.

Young Minds have conducted four surveys (Coronavirus: Impact on Young People with mental Health Needs) the results from the latest being published in January this year. The findings from this latest survey, to which there were 2,438 responses from young people aged between 13 and 25, reported that:

  • 75% of respondents found the last lockdown the most difficult to cope with
  • 67% believed that there would be a long-term negative impact on mental health
  • 79% did anticipate an improvement in their mental health following the lifting of most restrictions

Whilst this last point is extremely encouraging, with talk of the potential dangers posed by new variants, it is important to consider what impact there might be should the ‘road map’ for easing of restrictions be delayed for both staff and students.

There has been widespread recognition of the need to address and offer support for children and young people’s mental health through developments such as the Recovery Curriculum, but what of the education workforce?

A report from Education Support suggests that of the 3,034 education professionals that responded to their survey, 52% of teachers felt that their mental health and wellbeing had declined.

School ‘closures’ led to very rapidly having to develop a new way of working, predominantly through an intensive period of unexpected CPD in the use of online platforms and getting to grips with technology more widely.

This led to some interesting observations, many of which were positive. In the case of scheduling annual reviews for example, many reported that this became much easier as the people that needed to attend were suddenly more available; having to factor in travel time was no longer a consideration and so more meetings could be fitted in to busy schedules. There were reports that parents found that they were more confident being able to attend meetings from the comfort of their own homes.

For teaching, the new online way of working worked well for some pupils that struggle with social interaction, as the need for this was reduced and the recording of sessions meant that the learning could be accessed at a time to suit their particular needs.

Working online and remotely is a double-edged sword, however. Always being available can lead to diaries becoming crammed with meetings and the time in between them, which before would have provided some time for reflection and processing, has been lost. Also, we are not used to being able to see ourselves when teaching or attending meetings; this is something that many find particularly stressful. Even the chief executive of Zoom has acknowledged that he struggles with ‘Zoom fatigue’.

There is also the fact of professional as well as personal isolation to consider. We are used to having ‘incidental’ conversations with colleagues not only to catch-up socially but also to problem solve, share ideas and so on. It has been difficult if not impossible to maintain this. Some set-up WhatsApp groups to help facilitate these conversations and maintain a sense of connectedness. The downside here though is the potential for further blurring of home and work lives.

Now schools have fully re-opened, the situation has improved somewhat but restrictions resulting from Covid, have not totally gone away. Having to work in bubbles means that there still aren’t the opportunities for those professional conversations that would have existed before. There is also the ongoing disruption from having to self-isolate when cases of Covid are identified in the bubble to which you belong.

Taking care of our mental health and wellbeing is something that we all know is important and something that we should do. With combined pressures from work and home though, it is often easier said than done. Although an old adage, ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ nevertheless remains true. There are many resources available (for example, https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/your-mental-health, https://www.educationsupport.org.uk/ or https://mhfaengland.org/mhfa-centre/resources/) which offer practical suggestions, support and advice about how we can protect ourselves. Even if we only take a few of these on board, to start with, to quote another adage…’every little helps’