We need kindness and the ability to be human now more than ever

How do we keep going in the present crisis when it feels we can no longer cope with the pressures, the worries, and the lack of access to things that normally make us happy and thrive?

How do we keep our work and studies going when things are so difficult?

University of Leeds Vice-Chancellor Simone Buitendijk poses in front of one of the buildings on campus. August 2020.

The COVID crisis is not easing up. In fact, with the third lockdown, for many of us it feels like it has just gotten a lot worse. In spite of the vaccine rollouts, there is no clear end in sight. Our entire University community is tired, stressed and weary. No matter what our personal situation, all our lives are being profoundly negatively affected. It is no wonder we are exhausted: pretty soon it will be a year since the pandemic first uprooted everything for all of us.

It is painful to hear the stories of staff with caring responsibilities who are juggling their complicated home lives with wanting to do well by our students, or with the need to keep doing research, or to provide essential support to keep things going. It is difficult to listen to students talk about their mental health issues and social isolation, their problems with studying in circumstances that are far from ideal, and their worries about their assessments, their grades and their job prospects.

As I know we all do, I wish so badly that I could make all of the difficulties go away. Clearly, I can’t. I am focused on doing the very best I humanly can with my team, while acknowledging things cannot be perfect. My role as Vice-Chancellor at this time is to create as much security and support for as many people in the University community as possible, while being fully aware that whenever I need to make tough choices and take difficult decisions, I will inevitably disappoint some. Working with my fellow leaders, I have to weigh how much or how frequently I can ask people to help others, what I can ask support staff to engage with, and what I can expect from students.

Every decision at the moment requires these tough choices, since not everybody wants or needs the same things. My colleagues and I can only do so much, and we are always striving to do our best. But we as a leadership team can more effectively support the entire community if everybody is understanding of each other’s needs, forgiving when things are not at the normal level, understanding when people don’t get the exact answer they want, and willing to practice kindness, instead of letting anger and frustration lead. And of course we welcome positive suggestions from our community for how we can manage our way through these difficult times, which ultimately is more helpful for all of us than voicing frustration and anger, which is understandable, but doesn’t help address the challenges we all face. In short, we need to continue to pull together as one community, understanding each other’s pressures, motivations and ultimate desire to do the best we can for each other, whatever our role in the University.

In my most recent blog last week on the values-driven university, I emphasised the need for focus on trust, openness, communication and inclusion, both during this crisis and for the future. I am fully aware what a tall ask it is for our community to be empathetic when they are stressed and tired. It is, of course, completely understandable if people do occasionally lash out, or become less trusting, or feel frustrated and angry, or are more inclined to think in terms of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ when they are under severe stress and feel threatened in a deep, existential way. During this crisis, I have seen first-hand so many times our community’s enormous capacity for acting with kindness, understanding and compassion. To get through this intact and come out at the other end, not just alive but stronger, we need to continue to display that innate capacity for kindness and a clear focus on each other’s needs alongside our own, more than ever.

With my colleagues in university leadership positions, I want to put as many safeguards in place as possible in the circumstances against unnecessary stresses and unreasonable work and study demands. I am continuing to ask my senior colleagues to reflect on the pressures faced by our staff and students and provide as much reassurance as possible that we are aware that they cannot possibly perform at normal, pre-COVID levels, whether it is in their studies, their teaching, their research or their support work. While being mindful of overburdening colleagues, we also continue to offer our community the chance to feed back to us through surveys, which are an effective way of helping us gauge and respond to the issues people are facing. And while we won’t be able to reply individually to every e-mail we receive, we will listen carefully and communicate our decisions as best we can, while being fully aware we cannot possibly make the stress and the pain go away altogether.

So to conclude, I am convinced that what we all need most is some understanding of our stresses, help where it can be provided, and permission not to have to deliver to exactly the same level we would have done before the pandemic. In these extraordinary circumstances, I hope we can continue to be an empathetic community, with understanding of each other’s hardship and suffering. I hope we all have a will to reach out and provide support when and where we have some space in our own difficult lives, knowing that we can ask for help in return when we most need it. Perhaps we most need permission to be human.

In my blog last week I said: “If as a community we can overcome the present crisis and let it prompt us to re-focus on our shared human values, there is very little we cannot achieve.” I firmly believe we can come out stronger, but we will have a better chance if we pull together and, indeed, use our shared humanity to inspire us.

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