Building more resilient workforce

University of New England

Whether it was taking midday walks or baking endless supplies of banana bread; over the past few years of lockdowns and isolation mandates, these were a couple of the coping strategies that helped many of us get through each day. However, for some people, the stress and uncertainty that came with the pandemic couldn’t be remedied by novelty tasks, with it instead having long-lasting, negative impacts on their wellbeing and mental health.

To better understand this, a group of researchers from the University of New England (UNE) are conducting a pilot study using UNE academic staff members to find out how people were affected by the pandemic, and what the most effective coping strategies were. Once complete, their findings can be implemented by other institutions and businesses to help create a more resilient workforce.

To find out more about this new research, we had a chat with the project lead, Dr Vandana Gulati, from the School of Science and Technology.

Why is this study needed and what do you hope to gain from it?

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the lives of everyone in every profession. The constantly changing environments, such as lockdown, travel restrictions, isolation, and online transitions in academic duties has taken a toll on the overall wellbeing and mental health of academic staff in tertiary education. We would like to explore how these changes have affected the academic staff of UNE in the Armidale region and understand the simple coping strategies that will further help in designing interventions. This would assist in building a strong and resilient academic community at UNE and would help in managing stress by reducing negative emotions.

What are some of the changes academic staff had to deal with during the pandemic, and what did you notice people were doing to cope?

The sudden shift from face-to-face teaching to online learning almost overnight or within a few days tremendously increased the workload of academics. Academics had to familiarise themselves with new digital tools and adapt to virtual space complexities while supporting distressed and anxious students.These factors no doubt contributed to academic burn-out, and sparked feelings of uncertainty, fear, loneliness, stress, anxiety and depression. In addition, isolation, quarantine and social distancing impacted overall wellbeing and increased personal stress levels in individuals. This has broader repercussions, as emotional and mental health further impacts physical health and alters the immune defence pathway.

As online and hybrid work becomes more common, how will this study assist employers in ensuring all staff are looking after their mental and physical health?

Coping strategies can positively affect staff and can promote positive psychology, so this study will further assist employers to provide some active coping strategies to be included on a weekly basis to ensure the physical and mental wellbeing of their staff. To do this, our pilot study is using survey-based research to compare the normative data from non-pandemic times. This may direct further studies to explore the positive yet simple psychological practices of reducing the stress levels of academic staff.

If you would like to take part in the research, the survey is open to all UNE academic staff and can be accessed here.

The full name of the study is Self-Perceived Stress and coping strategies due to uncertainty of COVID-19 pandemic and constantly changing academic environment among academic Staff of University of New England in Armidale region of New South Wales, and the co-investigators are Professor Christian Cook, Associate Professor Phillip Fourie and Dr Benjamin Serpell.

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