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Building Resilience Amongst Uncertainty

on Thursday, 14 September 2017.

The pace of change and new levels of uncertainty in the higher education sector are having a greater impact than ever on staff working in higher education institutions.

Add to that the competing priorities and concerns of staff across a wide spectrum, and it quickly becomes clear that a priority is to build resilience not only as part of managing individual wellbeing, but also so that everyone in the institution is working for the same goals.


The changes in the HE sector have brought with them new pressures to deliver in a competitive, business driven environment which may be difficult for some to adapt to.

Managing performance should not be regarded as a punitive process only to be wielded where there is perceived failure, but as part of the ongoing regular conversations between managers and those in their teams to provide clear objectives aligned to the direction of travel of the institution, and the support and development they need to deliver in the changing world.

To minimise legal risks universities should implement and follow clear and equitable performance processes. Mangers should also be trained on the appropriate support skills to enable them to have constructive conversations with employees. Without this, managers can inadvertently expose institutions to risk, either by not having the necessary conversations, or by approaching them in the wrong way. Managers should also be encouraged to actively manage probationary periods with regular review sessions, feedback and support.

Development and Career Pathways

Development and career pathways are key motivational drivers, especially for those employees who want to be provided with plentiful development opportunities, to climb the career ladder quickly and receive constant feedback that they are on track. If this is not provided through good induction and clearly articulated progression routes, this is likely to impact on the resilience of staff to embrace change and give their best.

By providing appropriate development and training institutions will also be able to minimise some of their legal risks. There are statutory obligations to provide information, instruction, training and supervision, with particular obligations at key stages such as when staff first join an institution and when they are exposed to new or increased risks. Effective, ongoing development also helps employers comply with their obligations under the Equality Act 2010, especially towards disabled staff, enabling employers to focus on changing needs for reasonable adjustments throughout their career with the institution.

Work-Life Balance

The changes in the higher education sector are likely to lead to an increasingly demanding work culture and cause staff and managers to worry about how to achieve an acceptable work-life balance.

Historically, the culture of higher education has meant that there have been long held ideas of what is involved in being an academic (especially a researcher) including a long hours culture and, in the case of staff in professional services, an expectation of ready availability by email including late in the evening and at weekends. Yet in a creative and innovative environment, many staff find that time out provides them with the opportunity to think and come up with new ideas.

The ACAS guidance on flexible working and work-life balance published in 2015, whilst of no statutory effect, contains helpful practical examples.

Whatever impact Brexit will have on the applicability of the Working Time Directive to the UK (where there is currently an opt out allowing staff to consent to work more than the maximum of 48 hours a week), many institutions are really thinking about how they can deliver their education and research agendas whilst enabling a more flexible approach to working arrangements.

Stress and Mental Health

In 2016 mental health and stress cost Britain 10.4 million working days per year.

Employers have legal duties under the Equality Act, Health and Safety at Work Act, etc. and at common law to look after the mental health of their employees.

Higher education institutions are increasingly focusing on whether they are doing enough to create healthy workplaces where employees feel able to speak up if demands on them become too great. Again, there is helpful guidance in the ACAS booklet ‘Promoting positive mental health at work’.

Creating a positive working environment is multi-faceted but common elements include:

  • Regular evaluation/monitoring of policies using staff satisfaction surveys, sickness absence rates and Occupational Health referrals as indicators.

  • Access to support/counselling services.

  • Close working, and the establishment of protocols, with local health providers.

  • Active promotion of activities such as lunchtime exercise or relaxation classes.

  • Better training for managers to spot the early symptoms of stress within their teams.


The past year has brought many challenges for the higher education sector and there are undoubtedly many more to come, but it is important not to lose sight of the day-to-day issues that concern staff and those with managerial responsibilities. Successfully addressing these issues will produce more resilient staff who are better able to embrace the changes and play their part in helping to deliver the institutional response.

For more information please contact Bettina Rigg in our Higher Education team on 020 7665 0960.

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