Call for concrete action to mitigate the impact of COVID on staff wellbeing

The following letter was sent by Keele UCU committee to Vice-Chancellor Professor Trevor McMillan on Thursday 7th January 2021 at 12:12GMT calling for concrete action to mitigate the impact of COVID on staff wellbeing.

We are writing to you regarding the current COVID-19 situation in the UK and the impact of the recent lockdown upon staff and students. 

We are concerned that the detrimental impact of the national lockdown – coming on the back of an exacting year and hugely challenging semester – has not been fully grasped or meaningfully addressed by the University. At present, few concrete mitigating steps have been taken by Keele, in contrast to other institutions which are taking decisive action. The University of Strathclyde, for instance, relaxed expectations around some activities so that staff can focus on their wellbeing. Other institutions (notably Leeds, York, LSE and UCL) have committed to online learning for the semester to provide consistency and certainty for staff and students.  

We strongly ask you, as a matter of urgency, to follow these other institutions by putting concrete policies in place that mitigate the negative impacts of COVID, including the additional labour that many now face due to the lockdown: not only to support staff and student wellbeing in the present but in the longer-term.

We would like to highlight three particular areas of concern: 

1) Educational Delivery

Urgent clarity is needed about expectations for module delivery. We call for the University to commit to a policy to give individuals permission to deviate from existing delivery models that were established in Semester 1. Colleagues should have the choice to choose the teaching method (synchronous, asynchronous, or a mixture of both) that best suits their pedagogical objectives but also their specific personal circumstances during the lockdown.

We also ask for an immediate commitment to online learning for the semester for classroom-based subjects and classroom-based learning, in line with other institutions. This will provide colleagues with the clarity they need to start planning their semester without any further delay. 

These changes are especially important in mitigating the negative consequences of the lockdown in relation to workloads. To give some concrete examples: HR recently communicated to schools that university lecturers are key workers and entitled to school places. However, in practice schools have had to prioritise their intakes and numerous colleagues have informed us that they have had to, once again, home school their children. This has particularly affected single parents and families where only one parent is classified as a key worker, which has not only resulted in no school place but often left one parent in sole charge of childcare. PhD students who teach have, likewise, contacted us voicing concern at pressures in juggling teaching alongside their doctoral research, especially when they are often undertaking these activities in inadequate workspaces. Many colleagues have increased family caring responsibilities, and others are taking on extra teaching and administrative duties – in some cases nearly doubling their teaching load – that is being reallocated away from colleagues who are struggling to balance different demands. Finally, a number of colleagues have reported feeling overwhelmed by the challenge of supporting students with pastoral care needs, as well as the high levels of additional work associated with – once again – shifting back to an online-only model after planning blended modules.  

Colleagues are suffering unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety and sheer exhaustion. The resilience which members of staff have shown in the Spring of 2020 and during last semester is wearing thin. The University is risking the health and wellbeing of staff and students if it simply assumes colleagues will be able to continue working at the level they have been since March 2020 indefinitely. As a matter of urgency, we urge you and the senior management team to make major adjustments to the workloads and role expectations of staff before major disruption is caused by staff illness and burnout. ‘Flexibility’ is a term that is often used as a solution to our problems, but Keele UCU is clear that there has to be a fundamental reconsideration of what the University’s priorities are and how these are to be delivered in a way which will not jeopardise the wellbeing of staff.

2) Safe Working Environments

Many colleagues teach subjects that are classed as essential by the government and will continue to take place in situ. However, the risk assessments have not been updated since the beginning of semester 1. We are aware there is still a lot of uncertainty about the new COVID strain, but in light of recent developments we request that risk assessments are updated as soon as possible to implement additional mitigations specific to the new virus strain. Clear policies that reflect these new assessments are thus needed for colleagues who are undertaking in situ teachingIn addition, further advice needs to be communicated about what measures are in place to support shielding colleagues, while ensuring that those who are able to teach in person are not facing untenable pressures. 

3) Request for a meeting to develop a COVID career impact policy

Staff need clear recognition from senior management about the impact of the virus over the past 10 months but also understanding of the ongoing and long-term consequences of the crisis for the performance and career development of staff. COVID has had a severe impact on the ability of many colleagues to engage in the research and scholarship activities they cherish and which are essential to career progression. The response to such concerns has hitherto largely been either a denial of the problem, pointing to grant submissions during the first lockdown, or lip service to the impact of COVID. While many managers have been understanding at an individual level, Keele needs to develop a clear process to help recover our research and scholarship capacity and to give hope to members of staff that the efforts they are making in difficult circumstances are not going to be turned on them in the next few years. We need firm assurances that workloads and role expectations will be adjusted to mitigate long- and short-term consequences that have stark EDI implications, and precise detail about how they will be adjusted.

Keele UCU is realistic that the situation is highly uncertain and that it is difficult to commit to precise initiatives while the crisis unfolds. However, we believe that senior management can make a clear statement about the impact of the virus, particularly in terms of EDI concerns, suspend formal performance management processes, and work with Keele UCU to identify fair and reasonable ways of mitigating the impact of COVID-19.

A key concern raised by colleagues, which goes beyond immediate events, is the long-term impact of this year upon career prospects, especially due to the impact of the lockdown magnifying existing inequalities. Many people have been unable to conduct research for almost a year, due to increased workloads arising from small group teaching, large administrative loads, changes to modules associated with online learning, and caring responsibilities. Indeed, even those who – on paper – might seem to have had a productive year are increasingly voicing concern about major difficulties related to their grants and other research commitments. For instance, some colleagues have had to return money due to restrictions on international travel, others are concerned that they are unable to meet grant commitments due to increased teaching pressures, childcare, and uncertainties surrounding buyout. The impact upon all staff, in other words, cannot be understated. 

We request that senior management commit to a meeting to develop a COVID policy that puts concrete guidance in place to mitigate the impacts of this year upon all staff, and, in particular, which offers a clear response to EDI concerns. 

Yours sincerely,

Keele UCU Committee