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  • Writer's pictureLydia Pell

Thinking about values

Updated: May 26, 2020

I have been thinking about values over this bank holiday weekend. My day to day work is underpinned by my own strong belief that access to education and learning should be enriching, and without barriers, and particularly in higher education should not be a cause of distress or unhappiness.

I am sure that there have always been students who felt that university level study brought up challenges, feelings of internal pressure, expectations of others mismatching with ability, interest or identity. However more and more in recent years I work with students who are made deeply unhappy by the educational experience. These are young people who would probably not develop mental ill health in other circumstances, but find that the university culture, combined with social circumstances increases their feelings of distress.

I also am increasingly working with academics and professional services staff who find that the work they do no longer brings about pleasure. In previous years the enjoyment of being able to research, read, ponder, write, challenge and educate got staff through the potentially challenge organisational politics of 'the academy'. There was a sense of joint purpose within these organisations, and professional services staff were also able to enjoy the proximity to learning, and feeling that their roles contributed to the wider purpose of the institution.

There is an increasing commentary against 'the rise of the administrator', which deepen the divide between academic staff, professional service staff, and students. I find it interesting that people who are concerned about the mental wellbeing of the staff in an institution may also deploy language that blames managers, Senior leaders and administrators for decision making - forgetting that these are people who chose to work in a university because of their values. Probably not financially driven choices, but a belief in higher education. Some who may not have gained a PhD may have not been given the opportunities to do so, but have been able to succeed in other areas of specialism.

I wonder if we have wandered off the path of reflecting, and the value of thinking, both individually and collectively. I know that when I first started working in higher education I was able to spend time in my day reading and reflecting on my own practice. As time went on, and as I took on more responsibility, this have been harder to find. Indeed today as I write this blog, I have taken annual leave in order to have a day of 'life admin', which involves being able to think about my own plans for the coming months, what choices I want to make in order to ensure I have more time to work in ways that align with my values, and that my life in work enhances my life outside of work.

As we have all had time enforced on us, working from home, away from the office, the politics, and the people, I think we are all realising what aspects of work and study that we miss, and what we absolutely do not. For me the long daily commute is definitely not at all something I miss, but the informal interaction with people around the university definitely is. As is the identity of myself outside of the home (as mother, and wife) as someone who may know something about something ( and not just did I know where daughter or husbands belongings are). For me the value in my work is mostly about spending time with people. Not writing reports, analysing data, planning ahead ( all of which I have to do to enable others to do their roles well). But I also noticed how much I miss the time to think. Even in this period where many people are discovering more time to take up hobbies and find their workload decreasing, I have found that my day is filled with a never ending supply of emails, meetings on various digital platforms, and a long list of deadlines I cannot meet. I tend to be a pretty optimistic can do person, but have noticed my own standards of being helpful towards others, is at direct odds with how freely people can ask me to work to their deadlines, and the expectation from even the most well intentioned, to ask for information now - rather than when I am able to plan to give it to them. I then find myself cascading this down to people I also manage - continuing the chain of anxiety and request for immediate action - rather than reflective considered action.

I have always been able to maintain a strong sense of my own boundaries, and drawing a line between home, work and play in order to continue to thrive and develop, but the recent lockdown has made aspects of this much more difficult. I am finding that walking and listening to podcasts, and picking up creative activities in the week, and signing up to free training sessions are becoming more important to help me find thinking space outside of my work role, and I am trying to model this to my staff team so they also feel able to give themselves this time in their week. I had hoped that this new model of being a remote institution would enable more time to think, to spend time on our values, but I haven't yet seen how we can embed this into an institutional culture for the return, without it seeming like another gimmick for staff wellbeing. I am aware of some universities who have gifted extra days of annual leave, shortened the working week, and even instructing staff to not send emails in this period may be ones to watch in the coming months. They may be starting to understand that for a university to really improve the mental health of its community ( staff and students) it needs to think about values - and Value Thinking.

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