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Supporting employee wellbeing at Unite Students

Unite Students’ employees are there for our students day and night, all year round, helping them with any number of issues – including their wellbeing. But supporting employee wellbeing is just as important to us as an organisation, and makes up one of our new sustainability commitments.

Our Mental Health Awareness Week coverage continues with Victoria Simmons, Area Manager for Birmingham, sharing how the pandemic has highlighted the importance of wellbeing, how she’s worked with her team to support employee wellbeing during Covid, and how a happy team benefits the students who live with us.

Looking after properties and students across one of the largest cities in the UK and being a parent to two young children has its challenges. Then you add in a pandemic and home schooling, and the balance shifts yet again. Over the past 12 months I have had to adapt and work in a completely different way, simultaneously being an operator, teacher and parent, and my team have also had to continually change their ways of working to the ever-changing environment around us.

It is in moments like this that our own and others’ wellbeing becomes a priority – and yet it’s so easy to let it slip by and keep charging forward. For me, I recognise that I can only be at my best if I am giving equal attention to home, work, and my own wellbeing. The last 12 months have shown me more than ever how important that balance is – although I don’t always get it right!

My team this year have faced challenges different to any they’ve seen before, and so we wanted to find ways in which we could better support and encourage them to maintain their own wellbeing. Locally, we set up a running/walking group to encourage each other to get out more and away from the tasks in front of us, which reminded us every week to focus on employee wellbeing and share those moments together.

More recently, the team have set up an employee wellbeing hour. The time is spent out in the fresh air, litter picking our local community and having a chit-chat along the way. We aim to grow our gatherings and get more of the team out into nature, pausing the day and being able to get some fresh air.

We also started to talk about our own mental health by setting up weekly catch-ups. These weren’t task- or work-related, but instead a check-in with us all to discuss some of the challenges we faced and how we were overcoming them. Creating an open forum to talk about how we feel was something new and different, but for us all we realised that it was important to cultivate an open and honest atmosphere with each other.

These shared moments have also helped us to empathise with the challenges our students are going through. The last 12 months, as it is often said, have been like no other. Welcoming our students into an environment where social mixing was off bounds was something that we have never experienced. Many of our students rely on the support of others to maintain their own wellbeing, and for us we had to find ways to support our students during this time. Locally, we held flat chats virtually, and ensured flats isolating had everything they needed. More recently, many of my local team completed mental health first aid training. This has empowered the teams to notice when things may not be okay with our residents.

More broadly, Unite Students has recently created an employee wellbeing working group which is led and championed by colleagues from around the business and across the UK. This forum meets regularly to agree and move forward incentives, but to also deliver wellbeing awareness training to every team member across the business. This isn’t training as you’d expect with an assessment at the end, but something very different: it’s training in the sense of enabling our teams to recognise triggers, discuss coping mechanisms and start to shake off the stigma about talking openly and freely about our own mental health and wellbeing. There has only been positive feedback, as well as some real revelations through the sessions.

By starting to talk about how we feel in the workplace, we are truly starting to embrace the notion of ‘it’s okay not to be okay’, and are able to encourage and support those colleagues accordingly. This is a transformative movement, and one that we will continue to embrace.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week (10-16 May). In light of the past year, and our commitment to mental health as an organisation, we’re running a new blog every day this week from Monday to Friday, focusing on a different aspect of mental health and wellbeing in the Higher Education sector. Head here to see all of our Mental Health Awareness Week content.

If you need support, don’t suffer in silence. The Mental Health Foundation has a list of resources and suggestions available here . Where wellbeing concerns involve your work, reach out to your line manager or HR team.