There’s lots of characteristics of the UK students’ union “system” to be proud of.
At their best, students’ unions provide genuinely radical thinking. They are quick and responsive to students’ needs – faster than any university governance system ever will.
They signal coming movements, issues and social concerns, act to ensure the student body feels connected and valued, are rich sources of intelligence, diversity and feedback, and are inexpensive ways of achieving positive social and educational outcomes.
And despite the odd detractor complaining about turnout, the fact that they annually directly elect student leaders who go on to lobby and project plan to improve the student experience – senior leaders that remain spectacularly close to their electorate – is a real strength.
But I’m worried about something. Even before the pandemic, it was a lot of pressure. Before the pandemic, the accidental “design” of being an officer – with multiple complex hats that plenty of people on £1m salaries never combine – was probably unreasonable. Before the pandemic, we know that student mental health was a crisis for the sector. And during it, it got even worse – with life satisfaction and happiness both taking a hit, and anxiety hitting record levels.
That won’t have solved itself overnight. And it would be bizarre if some of those impacts hadn’t fed through to this year’s generation of student officers.
The good news is that an election season that was less “in your [physical] face” ought to have produced a generation of officers that are more thoughtful, analytical and strategic than in the average year – and my sense is that’s true. But the bad news is that might also mean we have a generation of student officers that are more cautious, less assertive and much more anxious than usual.
And who can blame them. Opinions on both sides of every issue are more polarised than ever. Expectations for this term are high – maybe too high – and who are the student officers that want to let students down? And at the back end of this term – with a squeeze on university funding, staff strikes and the possibility of major (and pretty negative) changes to student loans terms all a real prospect – the sense of a cohort of student leaders not wanting to let down a generation already let down during the pandemic is palpable.
I talk very little about my private and family life, but during the lockdown I’ve been observing, learning about and doing my best to support two kids whose anxiety has gone through the roof. It’s scary, debilitating, hard to “treat” and nigh on impossible to prevent without a deep understanding of often unavoidable triggers.
And everything I know about full time elected office in students unions – the lack of constructive feedback, the unpleasant rhythms of the term, the abuse from students and the “it will all be amazing” thing that some of us suggest it will be like in intros to articles like this – suggests to me that its characteristics this year are like to exacerbate rather than temper severe anxiety.
So what can we do about that?
Feeding the beast
There’s a glut of articles and self-help material about on managing and coping with anxiety, spotting the signs, knowing that that knot in the stomach or the deep unease is anxiety. You can probably find those articles yourself.
What I’m more interested in is the research on how groups and organisations cope with anxiety. According to one theory, for example, there’s a slide into three “tactics” called splitting, projection, and introjection where the way in which individuals cope with anxiety ends up dominating the culture at work.
“Splitting”, for example, in theory happens when we separate “good” aspects of our lives from the “bad.” We then “project” “bad” qualities onto others, and “introject” “good” qualities into ourselves. It means we feel more in control, because we’re able to turn our attention to judging and trying to control others.
That is what it is in our family or social lives. But when it manifests when we’re at work with other officers, the wider staff team, the “politics” of the SU or even the wider university, it can be quite a problem.
The research has shown, for example, that an anxious manager might split good and bad by considering themselves all-powerful (they introject good into themselves) while at the same time dismissing subordinates as unworthy (projecting bad onto others). Even worse, a manager might be compelled to act on these projected feelings by subconsciously punishing staff with extra work, impossible deadlines, etc.
For every year I’ve been involved in the student movement, I’ve seen sabb teams towards the end of this month (just as students run out of money and get grumpy) engaged in damaging splitting, projection, and introjection. And it’s worth noting that the research says that groups or organisations that are leaderless usually suffer more anxiety than most – and you end up with:
- Dependency – where a group stops trying to solve its problems and instead waits for a “messiah” to save it.
- Pairing – where two individuals related to the group (for example, two group members, or one member and an outside person) combine to try to oust someone they consider a “bad” member.
- Flight/Fight – where group members blame all problems on an outside cause, or they pretend that no problem exists.
The big problem, though, is that if anxiety ends up being normalised it becomes self-fulfilling. So if a crisis comes that creates a lot of anxiety, and some people fall by the wayside and some other heroes come forward to “save the day”, the unspoken message is that “this is what it’s like here. You either have to be strong enough to cope with crap, or hope for a hero”. And then culturally you get more crises, which leads to more anxiety, and more people falling by the wayside and more rewards for bravery and heroism. Eat, sleep, rave, repeat.
Breaking the cycle
So how might SUs break out of a doom loop, where all involved are resigned to the idea that deep anxiety and destructive coping mechanisms are not just inevitable in the sabbatical role, but also woven into it indelibly – so much so that only the strongest can survive it?
The first is feedback. It remains the case that outside of the odd chat with a confidente or a clunky 360 degree feedback survey, the election is the biggest bit of feedback (and praise) most sabbs ever get – and in many ways it’s all downhill from there.
There’s lots of great research on how lonely it is at the top – and that’s often focussed on those that have spent 20 or 30 years getting there and finding ways to cope with it. But there’s also great research that says that if you’re getting credible, observed, constructive and honest feedback from someone you trust, it significantly reduces anxiety both personally and then in the feed through organisationally.
I should be clear here that I’m not talking about coaching. Lots of unions now do this for sabbs and it has its place in the mix of support. But I’m talking here about someone else who’s in a position to judge and a relationship of trust being clear with you about how you’re doing.
Different SUs do this in different ways. It might be a wide PTO or a helpful member of staff. It could be someone in the university – perhaps not in senior management – or an SU manager outside of the portfolio of the officer. However you do it, it’s almost certainly true that if you don’t know where your honest dose of honest feedback about how you’re doing in the role is coming from, you need to get that fixed sharpish. And if you can’t remember the last time someone said “well done” to you – not to blow smoke but to notice when you’re nailing it – find someone. Now.
The second is finding ways to share fears and reduce uncertainty. I’ve met hundreds of officer teams who start off with well intentioned weekly catch ups that have all but abandoned “looking forward” together by mid-October – because, you know, diaries, and because, you know, waste of time, and so on. The research says that when groups share their concerns about what’s coming, it helps with coping, preparing and solving. Put them back in. Go for a meal. Whatever.
The third is preparedness and focus. It’s often said that the best leaders are generalistically shallow at 80% of their role but get the most satisfaction (and success) from the 20% of the role that they immerse in and completely “nail”. The research shows that the feeling of having a talent, special interest, goal or even particular regular meeting that we are complete masters of – where we are fully in control, deeply prepped and the opposite of anxious – boosts confidence and helps us cope with that other 80%. With everything going on, and all the demands that students have, is it easy to “pick” what goes into that 20%? No. But should you anyway? You bet. Now.
Beyond those types of strategies, there’s plenty for organisations to do. I’d like to see every SU and university senior team, for example, facilitated to explore what it is that the other lot do that makes their time at work more anxiety inducing. We should see much more support for sabbs in dealing with students who present with (and disclose) mental health issues. And occupational health support should improve, geared specifically around the exposure that officers face rather than breathing exercises and eating more fruit.
Maybe we do have to think again about the role. Those hats are individually super-complex now. And lots of reviews of sabbs either move the post-its around the titanic (“who’s getting societies”) or just veer between representing portfolios (while letting down some students) or representing academic faculties (while letting down some portfolios).
But maybe a more fundamental rethink is needed – where we reshape student leadership to be available to more people, and try to ensure that its endless expectations and demands are less concentrated into a handful of superheroes who worry for half the year about whether they’re worthy to wear the cape.
Just a thought. But probably one we should do something about before we repeat that cycle of doom with those ads for 2022 elections that will be out in a month or so.