What a comedown – SU officers in the departure lounge

In March 2019, Wonkhe worked hard to demystify the Secret Life of Students.

But if students’ lives are secret, the world of SU sabbatical officers is either even more invisible or just wildly misunderstood. While making the post-graduation move into the world of work is hard for all students, we thought it was important to dive into the reasons this transition can be particularly difficult for officers.

March marks the highlight of the SU year – election season. It’s an emotional rollercoaster, and not just for the candidates – as officer elects celebrate their success, it’s the beginning of the end for current sabb teams. But as officers at Sheffield Students’ Union, we didn’t know this yet. We were too busy tackling the stigma around mental health, making activism more accessible and providing support for students who take drugs, to think about what we were going to do after the high of the year was over.

Luckily, three years on, we’re both now working in an organisation we love – and that sees the value in hiring ex-officers. But getting here wasn’t straightforward, and not all officers have positive experiences when it comes to leaving the role and finding a new job. While making the post-graduation move into the world of work is hard for all students, why is this transition particularly challenging for officers?

The challenges for officers

At this point in the year many officers, like students, will be facing the reality of leaving their adopted city, leaving support networks, and maybe one of the closest teams they’ll work in. Being an officer does not feel like a job, rather part of your identity. From the moment you win your election you become “the [Welfare/Education/Sports] Officer” and the loss of that identity coupled with an abrupt end to the good (working with inspirational students and feeling like you are changing the world!) and the bad (sleepless nights and near-constant scrutiny) can feel like a crash and is difficult to adjust to.

Moreover, holding such responsibility (line-managing the CEO and £million budgets) at such an early stage in a career can create a sense of self-importance in some officers (including ourselves!). So when everyone else becomes more interested in your successor and the prospect of a “normal” job looms, it’s a slippery slope to feeling inconsequential. “Normal” graduate jobs seem like a huge step-down the career ladder, lacking the autonomy, gravitas and passion that go hand-in-hand with officer-life.

Whether you succeeded in organising an NSS boycott or campaigned for decolonizing the curriculum, these achievements will count for nothing if you cannot articulate your experiences to recruiters. Careers services offer great guidance to students/graduates on this, but an officer’s experience is unique – so support should be tailored to help them demonstrate relevant skills. But prioritizing career development whilst the students who voted for you are still expecting you to fulfill the promises made to them is tricky. All students find it difficult juggling job-hunting alongside final-year, but we believe that time to dedicated to proactive employment preparation is something that officers are lacking.

Whilst we know that some SUs provide excellent support to officers throughout the year, we’ve spoken to some ex-officers who say the support they were given declined throughout their term, culminating in little to no support as they left. As one ex-officer said:

“It felt a little like we were used until the last minute and then discarded”.

How can we collectively improve the transition experience for officers?

This shouldn’t be an afterthought, but if career development hasn’t been a theme from day 1, it isn’t too late now. Below are five tips for officers, SUs and the wider sector to start working collectively to solve these problems for future officers. Nothing written here is prescriptive and we would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.

1. Talk to ex-officers – This is a powerful way for SUs to learn how good your organisation is at supporting officers to leave and a way to identify effective measures to make this period easier for the next cohort. Officers, make an effort to re-connect with the previous team – what advice would they give you as you make this transition? Even just talking to someone who’s been there before can make the world of difference in this stressful period.

2. Who else can help? – By sharing real-life examples of what worked and what didn’t, senior leaders and ex-officers can really support you as you during this transition. But just across the road, the University Careers Service is the in-house expert on careers guidance and graduate jobs. From De Montfort’s Steer Your Career conference to Royal Holloway’s society workshops, there are a number of great existing partnerships between careers services and SUs, but if this isn’t something you are already doing why not set up a collaborative session or seek out this support on an individual basis?

3. The importance of wellbeing – The key to improving the wellbeing of officers during this period is through providing practical support (see easy tips above) and by fostering a positive and relaxed environment towards the end of their term. Organise an event to celebrate their achievements or just let them know what has impressed you about their time in office. Officers, remember you can’t change the world in a year and instead encourage your team to reflect on achievements and spend some quality time together before you go your separate ways.

4. Mentoring – We believe an officer alumni mentoring programme would be massively beneficial for helping officers figure out their next steps. A mentoring scheme like this has benefits for the mentee (support, advice and skills development), the mentor (develops their mentoring skills and can be incredibly rewarding) and for wider student politics, by keeping ex-officers engaged with the issues that students are facing. We’ve found many officers would be willing to give their time in this way, so why not get in touch with your networks!

5. Invest in their development – A tailored support programme, combining coaching and workshops, run across the year by people who understand what it is like to have been in that situation, would be a game-changer for officers. We know that there are barriers for SUs in providing this, but many people can help in making sure this support exists. We would love to hear about what you – as an SU, university or careers service – do to support your officers already, as well as your ideas for what a tailored support programme could look like.

3 responses to “What a comedown – SU officers in the departure lounge

  1. This is a great piece. As someone who worked in SUs as a staff member from 2014 – 15 and again from 2016 – 19 thoguh, including as a supervisor and middle manager, there are a couple of thoughts I’d like to add.

    I think 1, 2 and 4 are really great ideas. Talking frankly and honestly about the realities of post-sabb job hunting is important, and the best place people to advise on what career progression will be like are the people who have successfully navigated that transition. I think 1 is especially important given that many senior leaders across the sector have spent most, or sometimes all, of their careers in students’ unions, and so aren’t actually necessarily best equipped to be giving this kind of advice. Being a hiring manager also changes your perspective on the issue quite sharply; rejection is less hurtful and confusing when you’ve been on the other side of the table and had to make the hard call of who gets the last interview slot or who gets hired (which I know many sabbs have been part of, but not in quite the same way).

    I think 3 misses the point slightly though, and I think this is something sabbs are often (and not maliciously) oblivious to: there’s a lack of focus on wellbeing across the sector in general. Most SU staff are stressed for much of the year. Most Coordinators take on a remarkable amount of work and responsibility and work long hours. In my experience there is an expectation that staff in student-facing roles will sacrifice their wellbeing in the interests of keeping students and officers happy. Some SUs are better than others at trying to manage this: they’ll offer proper flexi-working so every hour of over-work gets claimed back and staff have power over their work-load; offer generous annual leave with a relatively liberal attitude (in theory or practice) to when it can be taken; review job descriptions periodically and collaboratively; identify ways to build responsibility and autonomy through time; recognise and work with a trade union; having higher managers get stuck in and pro-actively check on their staff; there’ll be a clear pay scale with progression above cost of living for so many years and so on. Others do little to none of these things. Some colleagues work in conditions and have had experiences that would rightfully boil our blood if we learned student staff were being treated the same way by a university.

    But burn out across the sector is quite high in general, and in my experience from when I was a Coordinator – and I know many Coordinators now would agree with me – is that this seems to have been accepted as a fact of life not worth dealing with. Coordinators are often straight up told that they’re not expected to stick around for more than two or three years. Whilst it’s true that many Coordinators are also in their first job and so that limits their understanding of how bad things can be in other jobs, I don’t think that’s enough to explain the burnout. I think any approach to enhancing wellbeing in the sector has to look at front-line staff as well as sabbatical officers, and in particular, has to look at the relationship between those groups. Extremely positive and extremely negative relationships between frontline staff and their officers can both become huge sources of stress for Coordinators in particular if those situations aren’t managed; the former for the extra work it can create for both parties wanting to do right by valued colleagues in an employment situation where saying ‘no’ is complicated by the trustee aspect of the relationship, and the latter for obvious reasons.

    Likewise on the development point, sabbatical officers already get a huge amount of investment in their growth and development, including mentoring opportunities with senior managers; induction programmes that equip them with skills and knowledge that will later be hugely useful in their careers even if not immediately; and the opportunity to engage with and learn from senior leaders at their institution. I know the depth of this investment varies from SU to SU, of course, but generally sabbatical officers have a lot of opportunities already. Those opportunities don’t exist for staff in the same way at your typical students’ union. Over the years, I have spoken to a number of colleagues on the front line who can’t help but feel a degree of resentment at the perception that officers who will only be there for a year or two have so much invested in them, whilst staff who want to build careers in the movement or use the job as a stepping stone to something really good – even if that means giving up the chance of pay rise or progression by going elsewhere – get very little. Expanding the sabb offer, I think, will only engender more disillusionment and frustration on the part of staff unless it’s part of a holistic approach to career development that takes in the whole organisation.

    SUs will never be able to compete with other sectors on pay awards. The vast majority of SU staff accept that as a trade-off for a job they love, on paper if not always in reality. Advancement will also always be limited – most management jobs exist once at a union, and not at every union, so if you want to move up you need to be patient and willing to at least think about relocating (as hanging around for 5 years until your boss’ job comes up doesn’t mean you won’t lose out to someone who already did the job for another 5 years at another SU). But we desperately need to have a conversation as a sector – current and former employees alike – about working conditions and career development more broadly. The movement hemorrhages good and incredible people every year, at the Coordinator level especially, and some SUs have seemingly resigned themselves to the fact no-one below SMT will stick around for long. The constant departure of staff means that relationships with key university colleagues suffer; key projects fall apart because the vacancy can’t be filled fast enough and no-one else can pick them up; other staff get burdened by extra work to fill gaps in operational capacity; and middle managers are constantly needing to start from scratch in developing new Coordinators who they know will probably leave very quickly, too. Frontline staff themselves, of course, are reluctant to question this directly to their employers in many cases and cannot raise the issue with sabbs, which in turn creates a ‘grin and bear it until you escape’ attitude when things get tough.

    I think we need a holistic, pro-active approach to wellbeing and career development that looks earnestly at the sabb experience and the staff experience together, and what particulars of both need overhauling. There are absolutely some important things we need to do better for sabbs and I think you’ve both identified good, tangible examples of what those things might look like. Supporting our officers during that transition to job hunt effectively and realistically, whilst pursuing opportunities that will nonetheless lead to inspiring careers where they’ll be able to progress quickly, is absolutely critical. I think it’s also important those sabbs don’t feel like lame ducks for the remainder of their term and that staff ensure they are motivated to tie up projects and get final wins for students, which as you suggest, can be aided by making sure their end of office is a celebration of achievement (both internally and in student-facing comms) and not just a goodbye.

    But I think a broader perspective is needed that considers the development, progression and welfare of all people who are just starting out in the student movement. Fundamentally every SU depends on its staff to function and work, even those that only have one or two. If staff don’t feel happy, motivated and like their workplace is invested in their development, then the potential effectiveness of our officers and the quality of services for our members will inevitably deteriorate. Some SUs are much, much closer to doing what needs to be done than others, but I think all have quite some way to go yet.

  2. (I should perhaps just add for clarity that, whilst I did hear that refrain as a Coordinator, I was one of the lucky ones that worked in a good SU that had all the things I described as going some way to deal with the problem. But a sector-wide problem ultimately needs sector-wide solutions.)

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