You ran to make a difference for students. You wanted things to change, to be more representative, fair, and equal. You wanted things to be better.
Sound familiar? I’ve been out of the game long enough to know that being an Full Time Officer (FTO) can be about as harmful to your emotional wellbeing as an entry-level job gets. Not only are you given an unprecedented level of legal responsibility, can be regularly abused online (sometimes for just existing), but it can feel like you’re paid next to nothing for the privilege.
Life as an FTO can be seriously unfair, and personally damaging. However, I would still do it all again in a heartbeat.
The typical team
Generally speaking, full time officer roles attract a certain type of person due to the nature of cross campus elections. On one hand, you’ve got the self-assured social climbers whose sights are set well beyond the SU – on the other, you’ve got the I-care-too-much-ers who put their heart and soul on the line because they believe in change, like me.
For people like this, being an officer can be a constant battle between trying to help everyone and beating yourself up when you can’t. It’s these compassionate people I have a message for.
It’s time to start being selfish.
Whether you’re in your first or second year as an officer, it can be all too easy to get caught up in the whirlwind that is daily SU life. Whether that’s back-to-back meetings with university senior management or bouncing from student forum to forum, you don’t notice what’s happening until it’s too late.
This is particularly the case at the moment, when officers, students and SU staff alike, have been deprived of real in-person student life. As a result, everyone appears to be jumping into activity with all guns blazing, but my warning to officers is that this job will take anything and everything you give it.
When you care so much on a personal level, coupled with the excitement of life returning, it’s far too easy to put more into being an FTO than you are able to sustain. We’ve all heard and seen stories of officers not being able to make it. So please, be selfish, and take a realistic look at what you can actually manage as the hype of freshers week dies down and the hard graft of term time begins.
That said, I know that for me as an officer and perfectionist, that warning went in one ear and out the other. In my eyes, my personal wellbeing was nowhere near as important as helping those around me and doing the things I believed in.
But if you’re anything like me, burn out is coming for you one way or the other. It was only in my second year that I managed to get this balance right, as I was able to appeal to my compassionate side by putting things into perspective. If I want to be the best officer I can be, I have to a) prioritise the important things and say no to the rest and b) simply just stop.
It boils down to one thing – you cannot pour from an empty cup. If you’re exhausted from working late everyday or stretched so thin you can’t see anything through, remind yourself this is not what students elected you for. When I framed prioritising my wellbeing in such a way, not only was I able to switch off guilt-free and have a life outside of being an officer, but I was happier, and this made me a significantly better officer.
If you haven’t already, do things like asking for a work phone that you can turn off at 5pm so you don’t feel the need to email out of hours, and work-specific social media accounts for students to contact you on. This also had the added benefit of allowing me to become genuine friends with my team outside of work (shoutout to you lot if you’re reading this). Boundary setting like this will benefit you, your union, and your students in the long run.
Seizing the opportunity
Being selfish is also important for officers in another way, especially for second years. It is highly unlikely you will ever be in a role like this again for quite a while. You’re a trustee of a significantly-sized charity (and in some cases the university too), working at senior management level day in day out, and get to influence key stakeholders on some seriously big decisions.
In no other sector are you given that level of freedom and responsibility with so little experience – it’s almost guaranteed to bring some kind of chaos with it, but I believe that’s half the charm of student unions. Uniquely, while being an officer you get to choose what you work on, so consider your own personal development when deciding.
Beyond thinking about what policies you’d like actioned at the end of the year, my advice is to think about the “how”. What skills are you missing or might you need in your career? Looking for a future role that needs data analysis? Survey student mental health and present a report of your findings to the university, it’s a perfect example of you demonstrating your skills.
Moreover, SUs are extremely diverse organisations and staff can help you get a feel for multiple different aspects of a business in a way you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Being an officer is what you make it, and it’s okay to let the role work for you too.
Why I called it quits
Bringing selfishness for your wellbeing and future under one umbrella leads me to how I came to the difficult decision to leave my role early in February this year. If you consider the sabbatical year in as crude terms as possible, it’s a 12 month fixed term contract with no opportunity for its extension (save from re-election if you’re eligible).
In as unstable a job market as we are thanks to COVID, you have to put your own interests first. It feels wrong to do, but it actually isn’t at all. I know many other past officers have experience with looking beyond their current role, so don’t be afraid to reach out to someone who’s “been there, done that” if you’re looking for advice, we’re all happy to help. Ultimately, being an officer doesn’t last forever, so make sure you actively apply and are open to opportunities elsewhere; you never know where your dream next step might turn up.
The hardest part about leaving was mourning the fact that I’d hit the sweet spot; I had an amazing team who were smashing it and I finally felt confident that I was succeeding in my role. After everything, why did I want to leave that? As difficult as it is, I promise you that the people who you care about leaving the most are also the very people who will support you wholeheartedly in doing what’s right for you. Plus, they’ll always find a way to make things work without you if they need to.
While incredibly difficult sometimes, it is also important to note how this applies to taking a break for your wellbeing too. There is an ugly side to being an officer unfortunately, but I mean it when I say no student voted for you to put being an officer above your health. If you’re struggling please do reach out to your team and union staff, there is absolutely no shame in leaving the role if that’s what you need to do. You wouldn’t be the first, and you probably won’t be the last.
Being an FTO was the best thing I ever did. It’s set me up for my career in the civil service working on policy, and given me an independence and resilience I couldn’t have earned any other way. It’s also given me a maturity that means I now know my limits, and despite wanting to help everyone all the time (to the detriment of myself), I now know that it’s okay to sometimes put myself first. I’m sharing this as I believe learning to be selfish was the best lesson I learned from being an officer, and it’s time you were a little selfish too.