In support of my FLEX 30 reading and learning, I reflect on Parkin’s Developing Sustainable Resilience in Higher Education (2020) – and how it reframes my own recent experiences as a marketing professional in higher education.
The last 18 months or so has been an incredible test of resilience for most people. And while I do feel that, generally speaking, I myself have dealt with the challenges of the pandemic as well as I could, I recognise that my own resilience has been challenged on more than one occasion.
Reflecting on Parkin’s Developing Sustainable Resilience in Higher Education piece, I was immediately struck by how familiar the challenges outlined were. I was also interested in how the notion of personal, team and organisational resilience has been central to my own recent experiences, particularly in illustrating my own coping methods.
Parkin recognises that leaders in higher education are required to create a ‘culture of care’ in a post pandemic environment. This means tackling issues like fatigue and anxiety in an uncertain future, as well as greater compassion, support and opportunities that allow staff to “rest and recharge”. He also notes that in addition to individual resilience, all of this has an inevitable knock-on effect for team and organisational resilience. “The interesting paradox here is that sometimes to be selfless we have to begin by being selfish. We hear it every time we get on an aeroplane, ‘in case of emergency, put on your own mask first before assisting others’. A simple concept that makes intuitive sense – you cannot help others for very long if you don’t take care of yourself first.”
In the last six months, I’ve had more exposure to HR than at any point on my career. There are a variety of reasons for this, not all of which I feel comfortable discussing in detail here as they involve personal, confidential matters relating to other staff members. However, what I can say is that I’ve found myself having to prioritise a culture of care to help others – at a time when my own personal resilience was being challenged like never before. On the evening of May 24th 2021, I was invited to a Microsoft Teams meeting that would take place the very next morning at 9am with no more information other than that I should prioritise it as an “important update”. Here, I was told my role as Head of Content was being “disestablished” as part of a restructure, but that I was welcome to apply for one of the two new roles being created that would incorporate my existing responsibilities. After four years as Head of Content, a role I’d taken because of my genuine passion for the University as both a brand and institution, it was a crushing blow to be told I no longer had a place there. The days and weeks that followed were a rollercoaster of emotions for me, as I tried to reflect on what had happened, and what it said about what I thought had been a valuable contribution to the University.
Initially, I felt fear and confusion, though I must admit this very quickly became anger and frustration. I reflected upon how, when I came to the University, the Head of Content role was pretty undefined. As such, I proactively sought out areas of weaknesses in our marketing approach. I wrestled back control of our messy and disorganised social media accounts, and developed guidelines, campaigns, reporting processes and countless strategic documents and presentations that would pull it back on track enough for a dedicated social media team to take forward later. The University had no brand tone of voice or style guide, and no useable guidelines for photography, video guidelines or course content, so I created them. As well as developing content, I introduced new content formats around motion graphics and launched the university’s first official podcast. For the latter, I not only established the shows themselves, but a format, structure and approach that I used to train others in podcast development, production and publishing. Beyond content production, I was using my role to ensure the University had the tools to create better communications. Did this explain why that role was now (or why I was now) being “disestablished”? Or was it something more personal? The ‘culture of care’ that had seemingly existed in the department, communicated in reassurances about financial stability, the importance of our roles and an institutional commitment to staff support, suddenly applied to everyone except me. It was difficult not to take that as personal.
These aforementioned reassurances are of course a part of what Parkin refers to as the “collective spirit” which has been seen in the higher education sector as a “response to facilitating campus closures, moving teaching online, designing alternative assessments and supporting individual student needs”, adding that this “has been nothing short of extraordinary, and has probably saved the day in terms of community wellbeing.” However, while this collective spirit is something I certainly recognise as having been present, or at least referenced, during the early part of the pandemic, such a notion feels very much at odds with how I felt in late May… as someone no longer welcome in that community, now there was some glimmer of light at the end of our previously shared tunnel.
As I saw it, I had three choices. The first was to leave the institution altogether (and therefore the MAHE pathway I was keen to complete). If I wanted to stay, my second choice was to apply for a role that would give me responsibility for multiple teams and university-wide campaign creatives, increasing my grade from 9 to 10 and taking me one step up the salary spine from point 43 to 44 (around £70 a month extra after tax). The third option was taking a role focused on developing a centralised video and photography team (something I’d argued for before), that would decrease my grade to 8 at spinal point 37 (taking about £460 out of my pocket each month after tax). Option one might satisfy my anger and frustration, but at the cost of my long-term personal goals. Option two (assuming I was given the job) would make it harder to achieve those personal goals due to the level of additional responsibility – and remuneratively it made no sense anyway. Option three would hurt financially, but I knew that professionally I could make it work – provided I could find the resilience to do so.
“Overcoming the initial hurdles takes one kind of energy, the resilience needed to remain engaged with the continuing changes and uncertainties is quite another challenge. This takes sustainable resilience, which requires conscious attention and commitment to develop” (Parkin, 2020). After various conversations with line management, senior directors, HR, union representatives and an external consultant, it became clear to me that the third option was the right move. However, I would need to find within myself the traits Parkin lists as attributable to “more resilient people”, which include self-awareness, acceptance, perspective, positive framing and the depersonalising of events, as well as factors like work-life balance and fostering supportive networks. I would need to do this not only to overcome the challenge that had been made to my individual resilience, but to create an environment that would also encourage wider team resilience – and all at a time where I was, in hindsight, at perhaps my most vulnerable.
Establishing that team, bringing together a group of people who have traditionally worked in completely different ways, understanding their needs, aspirations, strengths and weaknesses in order to service the needs of the university in the most positive, effective way has had its challenges. However, I believe that having found the aforementioned traits within myself (while also refreshing my own career aspirations through the FLEX programme), I’ve found a way to ‘help myself’ in a way that has subsequently bolstered my ability to help others.