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Mental Health: a bit of perspective

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In the October 2018 edition of the associate lecturer newsletter, Snowball, I wrote the following paragraph: “When I got to the beginning of October, I sat down after a hard day of emailing and suddenly thought: “Is this what burnout feels like?” I had caught myself looking at my Outlook inbox and couldn’t find the mental energy to open up and process another email.”

In 2015, I wrote the following in a blog post that reflected on the closure of the university’s regional centres: “I’m a pretty young guy. I can deal with stuff. I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for stress, but I’m beginning to suffer from change fatigue. I’m beginning to get tired and have started to think ‘what have I got to do now?’ and ‘when will thing settle down to a steady state?’  The issue of change fatigue was something that was mentioned by another colleague.  I’m feeling the strain, and I’m getting tired.”

I had another moment like this a couple of weeks ago, but it had a slightly different character. Rather than feeling unable to open up yet another email, I realised that I was becoming increasingly grumpy. There was another aspect to my grumpiness: I also felt a little ‘flat’ emotionally. 

I then realised that I had spent three very busy and very full days at the OU campus (I’m a home worker, so it’s always a bit of an ordeal to get to the head office), plus I had worked a whole Saturday on a quite demanding TM356 Interaction Design teaching event, that also took place on campus. In between all those days, I was working at home, on my own; just me and my laptop. I suddenly realised that my “very busy week” might have had influenced my grumpiness.

I then realised that I was in need of a holiday.

Staff tutor session

On 26 February, I went to the usual STEM staff tutor meeting. The first part of the meeting was all about general university updates: new colleagues, updates about the new tutor contract, clarification about the university strategic objectives, and something about the new IT systems replacement. The second bit was different; it was all about mental health.

The second part of the meeting was facilitated by Stephen Haynes who is from a charity called Mates in Mind which has its origins in the construction industry. 

Stephen presented what was described as a ‘whistlestop well-being tour’. He began by asking us some questions: “how are you doing?”, “why don’t we talk about mental health?” and “what do we mean by mental health?” 

A simple point was made that: we all have mental health, and it’s important to think of things in terms of ‘mental fitness’. A point I noted down was: one can have a diagnosed mental health condition but can have good mental health (which was a theme that came out of another session I attended in London, which I'll mention later on).

I made some notes about something called a ‘stress response curve’, which illustrated the difference between stretch (which is a good thing), and strain (which is a bad thing). If there’s a lot of strain over a period of time, then there’s a risk of burning out.

Stephen gave us some facts: suicide in the education profession is higher than the national average, 300k jobs are lost every year due to mental health issues and 44% of all work related illnesses are due to mental health issues (unfortunately I don’t have the reference for this, but it might well have been in Stephen’s presentation). Also, 1 in 5 of us are anxious most of the time.

I noted down 5 ways (or actions) that can contribute to positive well-being. These were: connect with people, be active, give, keep learning, and take notice (ironically, I didn’t note down what ‘take notice’ means, but I assume it means to take the time to be aware of ones surroundings).

I was also interested to hear that one of the biggest drivers of employee well-being is having a good line manager. This point made me stop for a moment: I’m a line manager.

As well as being a line manager, I’m also a home worker. I made a note of a set of potentially useful tips: consider your posture and work environment (my posture needs to be better), don’t multi-task (I try not to, but there are always distractions; I need to put my mobile phone in the other room when I really need to get on with some ‘thinking work’), use a web cam when you participate in remote calls (this way I’m forced to not work in my pyjamas and be scruffy), take the time to check in with others (I miss my colleague Sue, who has recently retired), look out for each other, look out for yourself, and take the time to listen. 

Like many institutions, the university has something called an employee assistance programme or scheme; telephone support that any employee can access at any time. I have to confess that I’ve never used it. Apparently, counsellors that support these programmes can readily say: “if only I had spoken to him or her sooner”. I never used that service since “I never thought I was that bad”, but looking back, I certainly feel that there was a point in my life where I could have benefited.

One of the biggest take away from that whole session was that phrase: “if only I had spoken to him or her sooner”.  The assistance service is there to be used, and there is no reason that I shouldn’t use it if I feel stressed or upset, or down, or anxious, or emotionally “flat”. Not even a misplaced sense of ‘masculine pride’ or sense of ‘coping’ should prevent me from chatting to someone. This, I felt, was a very helpful take away point.

Resources

After the session, I remembered that I had seen a couple of resources on the OpenLearn website. One is called Work and mental health, and another has the title: Exercise and mental health

A few years back, a Mental health awareness day (OU blog) event was held in the London regional centre. During this event, the theme of mental well-being was discussed. I also remember being shown a video called I had a black dog, his name was depression (YouTube, World Health Organisation), which also featured in our Staff Tutor session. I remember the biggest take away point from that day was the importance of choosing to do things, or to participate in events that are positive for mental well-being.

This takes me onto the final resource, a blog summary about a Home working workshop, that was organised by HR (OU blog). One of the main messages I took away from this event was pretty stark (I’m not going to tell you what that message was, but I’ll mention that it is in the section that is about setting and management of boundaries). 

The second take away message was simple, pragmatic and helpful. It was: ‘make sure that you plan your own down time’. Thinking back to my opening paragraphs, I think this is something that I need to get better at doing.

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Taming the IT beast

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 1 Oct 2018, 09:42

Cerberus, a three headed dog, fighting Hercules

On Tuesday 25 September I ran a short half an hour session during something called a STEM staff tutor’s meeting. The STEM staff tutor’s meeting happens around four times a year and takes place at the university headquarters, and it’s an opportunity for all staff tutors to get together, receive important updates about what is happening in the university and to share professional practice with each other. The session that I went to was all about the subject of managing some aspects of our IT.

I receive too many email messages. In September, I must be receiving anything between 50 and 100 messages a day. These can be about all kinds of different things: student issues, tutor group issues, and even messages about maintenance work happening in the campus in Milton Keynes (I tend to delete those straight away, since I’m a London based home worker!)

I also have a lot of files (which relates to different bits of module materials and various research projects I’ve been involved with) and links to a range of different websites that I need to navigate.

I chose a picture that represented the challenge of working with these three different aspects of IT; an image of Cerberus, a frightening looking three headed dog.

The session I ran had three parts: (1) How do I tame the beast, or what do I do? (2) How others tame the beast? (I asked staff tutors to share thoughts about what they did to best manage IT and information overload), and (3) What tips would you like to share to all staff tutors?

Sharing practice

During the first part, I shared something about how I managed my email by using folders. I use a lot of folders. I have folders for modules, module presentation, and also for announcements about policies and procedures that might be useful. I put emails in folders so I can remember what has been discussed and agreed. I have a whole set of folders that relate to what I’ve agreed to present at various staff development events.

I’m also a tutor on a project module. To keep track of my own tutor work, I’ve set up a rule that sends project related emails to a separate folder. To remember what I’ve said to students, and what they’ve said to me, I use folders. These folders, of course, get deleted at the end of a module presentation (due to GDPR legislation).

I obviously use lots of folders for my files and documents, and these take on a similar parallel structure as to what I’ve adopted in email. I have a folder entitled ‘modules’, and under that, I have a whole set of other folders that relate to specific modules. In these directories there might be things like tutor notes and drafts of assessment materials, and anything else that relates to a module (such as briefing presentations, for instance).

When it comes to web and application links, I adopt a really simple approach. I don’t use bookmarks, since I know that I might sometimes use different computers. Instead, I keep them a university website called TutorHome. Alternatively, I could use something called the Dashboard, but I’ve never got on with it, for some reason. I always found that I had to spend time moving things about. I’m aware that if I spend more time looking at it, that time investment might lead to a productivity pay-off. For the moment, I’m continuing to stick all the important web links that I use on TutorHome.

Sharing tips

After some group discussions, I asked everyone to share what they thought were their most useful tips. I tried to roughly note down what everyone said:

  • When it comes to email, have the confidence to delete things (I personally try to do a control-delete to permanently delete something straight away!)
  • Take the time to go on an advanced Outlook course, which is sometimes run by IT
  • To handle all your web links, an idea is to put these into a Word document, and write an accompanying narrative about what they are and how they can be used.
  • Set up rules for your Outlook email to shift emails into separate folder. This way you can choose to look at things when you want, rather than having to be forced to look at them when they appear in your inbox.
  • Use advanced Outlook features, such as tasks and organise meetings using the scheduling assistant tool. You can drag emails onto your task list, and into your calendar.
  • Put flags on emails that are likely to be tasks. You can also specify a time when tasks need to be completed by, and this appears as a task summary.
  • Ask yourself the question: does this email need to be sent. Or, put another way: would it be easier to actually speak with someone over the phone.

The staff tutors who were attending the meeting remotely provided the following suggestions:

  • Use more than one screen if possible; you can use your laptop with two other monitors.
  • Use rules to categorise on keyword, which can give you a colour coded inbox.
  • Start your day by deleting as many messages as possible from the previous day, and only keep messages that are really necessary. 
  • Have folders that relate to a module and year, rather than by presentation, this way you can delete them easily. 

A final personal tip that I once heard was: ‘if you open an email, ask the question of whether you are able to action it there and then; if you find that you can, do it, since there’s little point in closing an email and opening it again at a later point – that just wastes time!’ That tiny tip, along with asking the question of ‘can I delete this right now?’ has really helped me to manage my inbox. 

Outlook resources

After the session, I was sent a link to a training resources that related to Microsoft Outlook which might be useful. In the spirit of sharing, here are some of what I think are the highlights (which should be publically accessible):

Reflections

A thing that I took away from this session is: I really ought to take a bit of time out to see if I can figure out how to use Outlook in a more sophisticated way. I feel that knowing more would do me good. I’ve tried to use the task feature before, but for some reason, it always annoyed me since everything I flagged as being a task had to be completed pretty much immediately. I’ve since learnt that you can specify date and times for when tasks need to be completed. I’m not sure whether this will replace my own paper ‘todo’ list, though. This said, I need to learn a bit more, and I might give Outlook tasks another go. A final point is: everyone is different, and everyone has their own preferences about how to get things done.

Acknowledgements

A big thank you to Nicola McIntyre for running the meeting.

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