Podcast: Leading mental health and wellbeing in the Further Education sector

The Education and Training Foundation (ETF) worked with Stuart Rimmer, CEO of East Coast College Group, to curate a group of leaders from across the sector to explore in a conversation key aspect of wellbeing and the challenges this brings in leadership.

Listen to the full meeting via the podcast.


During a 90-minute roundtable, the group explored key themes and shared helpful insights into wellbeing including:

  1. The leadership of self in a senior role.
  2. How they formulated (formally or informally) a wellbeing strategy for staff and how has this affected staff and learners.
  3. What aspects of staff wellbeing might need a systemic sector approach.
  4. Where we might encounter conflict or congruence between wellbeing and staff performance.
  5. The role of the Further Education (FE) provider as an employer and how does this relate to individual responsibility?

This session was recorded for anyone to listen to and take away effective practice and engage with the reflective debate. Below is a synopsis of the key points coming from the roundtable discussion. The meeting took place on Friday 22 January 2021 at 10am via Zoom. It was chaired by Stuart Rimmer with representation from the following leaders:

Ali Hadawai
Anthony Harmer
Barbara van der Eecken
Caroline Lewis
Chris Webb
Dawn Hall
Palvinder Singh
Sam Parrett

Also in attendance were Claire Gibbs, Executive Assistant at East Coast College, Janet Clarke, the ETF's Head of Leadership at the ETF, and Teresa Carroll, the ETF's National Head of Inclusion.

The meeting discussed concepts of leadership and wellbeing, how we manage and develop wellbeing strategies within our organisations, and the implications of our thinking around wellbeing especially in this current time.

Teresa welcomed those present, stating that mental health and wellbeing prior to Covid-19 was becoming a topic much more openly discussed understanding that it is an issue not only for teachers but also the learners across the FE sector.

A survey carried out by the ETF in February 2019 highlighted how stress was dependent upon who their line manager was, whether there was autonomy and trust in their role, and more importantly who was leading the organisation, and if they led by example — these themes were all discussed during this meeting.

Summary of themes

The discussion explored and developed some key themes as output to take forward into policy and strategy development:

  • Bold and brave leaderships is required through this period.
  • Wellbeing is “the work” and is required to be holistic not a bolt on.
  • Connecting people and taking the pressure off where possible will yield results. This occasionally requires permission.
  • Self-care is hard.
  • Rediscover the fun elements of work and college community.
  • Coaching approaches and supervision for this could be the new leadership standard and essential skill. Allowing the sector to adopt a different mode of leadership.
  • Policy might not be an enabler, but it should not restrict progress in this agenda.

The group gave responses and reflections exploring self-leadership as follows:

  • Always looking for positives.
  • Pandemic has helped to focus on what I need to do.
  • Moved away from challenging targets and try to do the best that I can.
  • The impossible is not possible and there is a requirement to take the pressure off.
  • Creating a better work/life balance to include more exercise and family activities.
  • Allow yourself to have some fun to take the pressure off- which was felt was missing from current FE system.
  • The “human factor” feeling increasingly essential and prioritising them rather than being transactional.
  • The “fluffy stuff” is now the work.
  • Self-care is critical in everything we do.
  • Lost the human touch during Covid and bringing in something that is fun and makes us smile.
  • Remember that things will be there the next day, it is okay to stop – to combat the extended working days.
  • A feeling it was time for “Brave” leadership that meant not following prescribed norms.
  • Its ok not to be ok and its ok to fail.
  • Need a level of comfort to support people when things go wrong.
  • We are entering into a phase of thinking differently how we support each other.
  • Self-care in leadership is difficult and often leaders act as the stress absorber.
  • The leadership task is made more complex being split between multiple places and geographies.
  • Protected time in the morning to go for a walk.
  • No agenda meetings to allow free talk.

The group gave responses linked to wellbeing strategy development but also the leadership within wellbeing strategy as follows:

  • Lead by example was felt to be key which included being highly visible and focus on improving connections and relationships.
  • Wellbeing newsletters and wellbeing days with different themes.
  • Having the right equipment to work with was foundation element.
  • Deploy staff that cannot do their normal job to another job for their mental wellbeing.
  • Being in control of their own workspace.
  • Creating sense of purpose using strategies of empowerment.
  • Having a balanced workload.
  • Informally asking people how they are with open ended questions.
  • Talk about ‘and life stuff’.
  • Increasing therapeutic methods to help support staff. Exploring the concepts of Psychological PPE.
  • Swim buddies was used extensively at one college to support individuals. Concept adopted from US Navy Seals.
  • Have open conversations about personal life because if something is not going well at work it is invariably linked to something outside of work.
  • Being kinder to each other and more tolerant to different working practices.
  • Allowing each other time out and space to step back.
  • Be sympathetic and understanding to individual needs.
  • Bring in the community feel and need to look after each other.
  • Clear boundaries.

The group gave the responses as follows:

  • Wellbeing and mental health are becoming a significant industry with all kinds of themes and words.
  • There is the governance of the leadership role with language that is used and how this makes people feel.
  • Words that are used, hold to account, robust challenging is not helpful.
  • The heart and soul of the organisation has been neglected and wellbeing is about the heart and soul.
  • The individuals have responsibility in concert with institutions and the wider system.

The group gave the responses as follow:

  • It is difficult due to the policy environment that have been created over decades.
  • Still room for leaders to operate.
  • A leader is an enabler and protector.
  • Does the policy environment allow? Not a great deal.
  • Is it possible despite the policy environment? A lot of it is but not all of it.
  • Keenness not to be a victim of the system.
  • Individuals can make a difference.
  • To move it forward doing it collectively can make a difference.
  • Take control can make transformational change.
  • Putting wellbeing at the centre of your plan will reflect in better performance.
  • But this change is a “leap of faith”.
  • Are we looking to do extra things for mental health or wellbeing or do we just need to look at the way we work?
  • Listen to what people need and adapt to what people need rather than adding a layer on mental health and be part of what we do day-to-day.
  • What legacy do we want from this, do we want to go back to how it was.
  • Look at it holistically not as an add on.
  • If we do not all believe as leaders that we could make a difference we would not be here.
  • There are a substantial number of false premises and false truths within the system – layers of complexity make it difficult.
  • Exceedingly difficult to interpret policy following a master and servant method.
  • We have not scoped the challenge of why wellbeing is such a problem not just for FE but for society.
  • Change is inevitable and being comfortable with being uncomfortable is there.
  • Concept of language, how we interpret it, how we speak to each other – stop, reflect, and communicate.
  • Consequence and behaviour have not been aligned.
  • More collaborative leadership on difficult situations.
  • Having the will to want to be supportive and a kinder and more collaborative way of working.
  • Recognise that people do need down time and that it is acceptable to have down time.
  • Stick to it and take it back to what it means to be human.
  • Think now about the legacy and what we want to do in the future and start to create the path.
  • Listen to and trust the whole sector that they have the solution.
  • Strong collaboration and partnership working.
  • Create educational and institutional “support bubbles”.
  • Invest in your workforce and trust them they will deliver on our purpose and mission.
  • Move away from at looking at investment as cold hard facts and figures with investment should mean an investment in them as people.
  • Need to move away from “cold” metrics to “warming” hearts and minds.