Spotlight on employee wellbeing: COVID-19 and beyond

AusELT member Karen Benson and her colleague May Barbree from the School of English and University Pathways (SEUP) at RMIT University Vietnam outline their centre’s response to the wellbeing needs of teachers and staff during the challenging period of COVID-19. They discuss how remote working, purposeful use of technology and a wellbeing focus has resulted in a more holistic and open focus on wellbeing for teachers. This article is for language teaching professionals whose organizations are interested in teacher wellbeing.

2020 began as usual for the School of English and University Pathways (SEUP) at RMIT University Vietnam. COVID-19 was of far lesser concern than the upcoming Vietnamese Lunar New Year, Tết, holiday. By the time those who were able returned to work at the end of January, the world was a different place. SEUP was piloting online teaching with 1000 students online across three campuses within two weeks. When lockdown policies went into effect in Vietnam at the end of March, RMIT moved all operations online and shifted to emergency remote teaching with no student or staff access to campuses. While our first formal Health and Wellbeing program had been established in 2019, employee wellbeing during remote teaching and working added a new dimension and quickly became an important focus.

There was clearly a need for a prompt institutional response to support all staff. We also know that teacher and learner wellbeing are highly interconnected. We know that good mental and physical health help teachers to cope with challenges, be more creative and innovative in their teaching and that teacher mood, emotions and motivation are contagious (Mercer and Gregersen, 2020). How would we check in with our teams to ensure they were coping and felt supported? How would we define, adapt and manage expectations when working remotely? What responsibilities did SEUP have in sharing physical and mental health wellbeing advice during this period of unprecedented uncertainty and physical distancing, and where did peer support come into play?

The sudden switch to supporting employees as we entered the crisis and understood the potential longevity provided the impetus to review our 2019 Health and Wellbeing program.

This review process posed many questions:

  • What does it take to build a culture of care?
  • Would we shift from traditional top-down wellbeing initiatives to omnidirectional engagement to encourage peer support?
  • How could we foster an inclusive and interactive wellbeing ‘community of interest’ within and across SEUP teams and campuses?
  • How do we quantify wellbeing in our workplace and measure outcomes of a program?

“Workplace wellbeing comprises positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and achievement” (Seligman)

Research into teacher wellbeing has tended to focus on negative states, such as burn-out and stress as opposed to exploring the application and outcomes of positive psychology strategies (Turner and Thielking, 2019). This notion fueled the leadership team to explore positively-framed frameworks to guide and inform our wellbeing plan. The PERMA framework (Seligman, 2011 in Slavin et al., 2012) which defines wellbeing as comprising positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and achievement seemed to be a good fit for SEUP so we started to unpack and map how each of the domains translates to our context. COVID-19 allowed us to dedicate resources to this area.

The Leadership team swiftly implemented multiple top-down procedures. First was extending the Employee Assistance Program (confidential coaching and counselling through Benestar) and connecting with the RMIT Vietnam Wellbeing Department which offers professional and practical support, particularly for teachers experiencing challenges with students. We then set about identifying employees needing additional support for reasons of childcare, housing situations, inability to return from abroad, or flexible leave for mental health maintenance. A remote working check in system was established. Professional Learning pivoted to needs-responsive training and drop-in clinics to support ERT. Teams had regular virtual social events and coffee catch-ups to maintain contact and rapport.

Alongside leadership actions, a Wellbeing Working Group was formed with representatives from the academic and professional teams, both expatriates and Vietnamese. The objective of the working group is to generate opt-in initiatives from and for teachers, professional staff, and management.

The objective of the Wellbeing Working Group is to generate opt-in initiatives from and for teachers, professional staff and management.

Out of a teacher-led Microsoft Teams group, The Wellbeing Working Group of academic and local professional staff from all three campuses launched and now curates a Yammer community consolidating health and wellbeing, staff engagement, and community engagement. Events have included virtual quiz nights, an online craft session, and photo challenges. Several of these events were used as community engagement fundraisers for local charities.

 RMIT Vietnam has campuses in Ho Chi Minh City, Danang and Hanoi – hundreds of kilometres apart. Employees from all locations and in all roles are participating in virtual team building events, donating to local charities for COVID-19 relief, and sharing tips and thoughts on our shared experiences. Sessions on maintaining wellbeing are being integrated into our Professional Learning program for the first time. Engagement with the Wellbeing Yammer Community has increased incrementally, with a high of 30% of staff engaged with content in a single day.

Against a stark backdrop of physical and emotional challenge, the combination of remote working, purposeful use of technology and a wellbeing focus has resulted in a more holistic and open focus on wellbeing in the workplace. The diverse dimensions that impact wellness and the journey into a more inclusive culture of care will surely reap benefits for individuals and organisations alike.

Examples of posts to the online SEUP Wellbeing Community

RMIT Vietnam Wellbeing square

References

Mercer, T. and Gregersen, T. (2020) Teacher Wellbeing. Oxford:Oxford University Press.

Slavin, S.J., Schindler, D., Chibnall, J.T., Fendell, G., and Shoss, M. (2012). ‘PERMA: A Model for Institutional Leadership and Culture Change’. Academic Medicine, vol.87, no.11, 1481.

Turner, K. & Thielking, M. (2019). Teacher wellbeing: Its effects on teaching practice and student learning. Issues in Educational Research, 29(3), 938-960.

Karen Benson is the Centre Manager, Danang, RMIT University Vietnam’s School of English & University Pathways. She has worked for 14 years in English language teaching and education management in Australia and the Pacific, and the last two years in Vietnam.

May Barbree is a Senior Educator at RMIT University Vietnam. She has a degree in Education and is Cambridge DELTA qualified. A teacher for over 10 years, she has worked in universities in four countries, and as a Teacher Trainer for several language teaching organizations.

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