Building resilience

Why this is crucial to the successful delivery of institutional responses to the challenges facing the higher education sector

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

In this article, Bettina Rigg (pictured right), Head of Higher Education at VWV and Jacqui Marshall (pictured left), Deputy Registrar and Director of HR at University of Exeter, look at some of the issues and risks that HEI executive teams and governing bodies should be thinking about in order to build resilience throughout their institutions, so that they are better able to respond to the changes and uncertainty. This follows workshops delivered by Bettina and Jacqui at the UHR 2017 conference.

Changes Affecting the HE Sector

In the past year, the HE sector has been subjected to unprecedented levels of change – both internal and external. There has been the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework; proposed changes to the Research Excellence Framework; the uncertainty of Brexit with implications for staff, students and research; global competition for staff, students and research; changes to the very framework of higher education through the Higher Education and Research Act; the rise of the student as a consumer and most recently the uncertainty caused by the hung parliament following the general election in June 2017. The pace of change is unlikely to abate any time soon.

These are all huge issues that will take up the time and energy of executive teams and governing bodies but at the same time, individuals working across HEIs will have their own day-to-day issues that keep them awake at night and which, if not properly managed, will be likely to impact on their wellbeing and ability to effectively deliver what is being asked of them in this new world. The resilience of staff should be a risk on any HEI’s risk register. We discuss below four of the most common concerns that we hear about from academic and professional services staff and from those with managerial responsibilities.


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.

Key to minimising the legal risks will be putting in place, and following, clear and equitable processes and the provision of support skills for managers to enable them to have constructive conversations. Without this, managers can inadvertently expose institutions to risk, either by not having conversations or by approaching them in the wrong way. It also involves actively managing probationary periods with regular review sessions, feedback and support.

Development and Career Pathways 

Development and career pathways are key motivational drivers especially for millennials who want to be provided with plentiful development opportunities, want to quickly climb the career ladder 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. 

The provision of development and training will also enable institutions 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 HE sector are likely to lead to an increasingly demanding work culture and cause staff and managers to worry about how to achieve/ facilitate an acceptable work-life balance.

Historically, the culture of HE 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 which indicates a huge problem.

HEIs are focusing more and more 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’.

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.

So from a risk perspective this is a business imperative. Employees also have a duty to look after their own health, so part of the approach needs to be to ensure that processes are in place to facilitate.

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 HE sector and there are many more coming down the track, 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 day-to-day 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.

To be kept up to date on legal, regulatory and governance issues please register for our dedicated HE portal OnStream.

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