SU staff are not immune from the struggles of Covid-19

It is a busy time for students’ unions. Having managed to induct their new sabbatical officers remotely, trawl through countless risk assessments and deliver a Covid-secure freshers’ week, their attention is now on supporting students as they navigate university life during a pandemic.

Factor in limited budgets alongside external scrutiny and the next few months will test even the most resilient of staff members.

Student welfare is no longer a niche topic. With stories of first years being locked in their halls of residence reaching mainstream media, students are fast becoming recognised as yet more collateral damage of the virus. We cannot underestimate the difficulties those in tertiary education will face and students’ unions will have a key role in protecting the rights of their members.

Heard immunity

However, staff are not immune from the struggles of the past several months. The pandemic has brought challenges for employees across all industries. Aside from the obvious fear of contracting the virus, people are also contending with the threat of redundancy (according to a Mental Health Foundation briefing, one third of full time workers fear losing their job) and, for parents, the possibility of being left without childcare in the event of school or nursery closure.

The internet is full of hot takes about how Covid may change the world of work for the better. Gone are the days of rush hour traffic and finding sustenance in a joyless meal deal. Flexible working has given us a taste for home cooked lunches and a slightly healthier bank balance thanks to the lack of commute.

Whilst this is not the reality for everyone, it is certainly an attractive prospect to those of us lucky enough to be able to work remotely (without caring responsibilities to juggle). As with most things, however, there is a catch. As a colleague cleverly put it: we’re no longer working from home, we are living at work.

For some, working from home has sabotaged any attempt at a work life balance. Whilst presenteeism in its most overt form is on the decline, people will always look for ways to show their dedication.

With our workstations only metres away, the temptation to demonstrate our commitment to the job via out of hours emailing and early morning Zoom activity is far more tempting than a late-night stint in the office ever was. Even if you’re not working excess hours, it can be difficult to forget about a stressful day when it took place in such close proximity to where you’re trying to sleep.

A special case?

The problems cited so far are certainly not unique to students’ unions however the nature of these organisations can exacerbate them. SUs tend to have fairly young staff teams (including the Sabbatical Officers) who are more likely to live in a shared house without access to a suitable work-space. They also employ advisers, whose constant exposure to student suffering can have adverse effects on their own mental health.

Lastly, and perhaps this is more opinion than fact, jobs in students’ unions often attract extroverted personalities who thrive in the company of others. For them, working from home is likely to resemble more of a punishment than protection.

Fortunately, most charitable organisations pride themselves on an inclusive approach to supporting staff, such as offering flexible hours where possible. This doesn’t mitigate against the impact of a global pandemic but it’s a solid start.

Next, we need to rebuild a positive workplace culture that factors in our current reality. And in the meantime? Hide your laptop when you have finished work for the day.

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One response to “SU staff are not immune from the struggles of Covid-19

  1. I agree with most of this – what I would also add, which I feel may be actually more unique to SU staff than in other places – is the incredible amount of mixed messages and expectations going on at the moment. In my institution, it has been made absolutely clear we need to put on a range of events (including f2f) for students by the University in one set of meetings, whereas in another we are expressly forbidden from doing pretty much anything. It feels very erratic and the levels of stress it causes (all of which are passed on to junior staff) is unfair. I feel that, unless you are in the lucky few, the lack of a supportive “parent” institution is felt more now than ever, with the carrot very much gone and the stick of “do this or your block grant is gone” is more present than at any stage in the last decade.

    Add to that the increasingly unhealthy dynamic that exists in the sector between sabbaticals and ‘career staff’, and the way zoom is inviting students (and Union Councils etc) into our homes and its all fun…

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