How can we better support Sabbatical Officers and their mental health?

Today is University Mental Health Day, and lots of SUs are taking this opportunity to review their work, audit themselves and think about how they can better support students.

This is all great, but I wanted to take a moment to encourage those in the sector to think about their Sabbatical Officers and if the support methods are actually right for them.

Sabbs can often be so focused on supporting students that they can at times deprioritise their own mental health.

A Sabbatical Officer might only have a year in post, but they are often subjected to countless emotionally challenging experiences within that time.

From my own experience I had to cope with:

  • student suicide;
  • supporting a student subjected to racist behaviour;
  • supporting students facing the prospect of not being able to graduate due to debt;
  • complex disciplinary and complaint processes, including things like sexual assault.

I was unprepared for each of those experiences, and never considered that I might have to respond to them when I stood for office.

There were so few of us at Abertay SA, especially in my first year in post, that I didn’t remove myself from the situations and I always tried to help.

Each of these examples took their own toll on my mental health, and saw me deprioritise my personal life, work extra hours and at times become a little too invested in trying to help.

At the same time as supporting students I also had to lead our SA through:

  • overcoming a financial deficit;
  • major organisational change;
  • chief executive recruitment;
  • a lack of confidence in the SA from our university partner and our student population.

Each of those were also mentally challenging and required a significant amount of resilience to lead colleagues and students through them – but should that be expected? What would have happened if I ended up making myself ill from stress?

Many officers that I speak with, still report that they feel like there is a lack of support for them.

We all know that our Sabbs are overworked (and often underpaid!). We can all see that Sabbatical Officers are coming under increased challenge in from media when there is chance to take a pop at them.

We also know that each year we see a number of people standing down from office or opting not to re-run, in part due to their toxic experiences. Are we happy with that?

What can we do?

Five tips to support Sabbatical Officers and their own mental health

Each Sabbatical Officer will be different, and their support needs will be unique but I have added a few ideas below:

  1. Provide a good induction, including outlining their rights as employees and their ability to access things like sick pay/leave, and encourage officers to use TOIL and Annual Leave;
  2. Encourage a support network among peers, especially important for non-NUS SUs;
  3. Provide an external mentor, I see many SUs have an internal support for Officers, but what happens if the officer wants to discuss an issue that they may have with the SU itself?
  4. Ask if the officer would like professional, confidential supervision sessions from a trained professional;
  5. Ensure that there is resource to provide support (whatever that might be).

I’m unsure if the role of a Sabbatical Officer will ever be a less demanding one, but we can all try to be more kind and have a greater level of understanding when we are considering what our officers have to endure in post.

About the author:

Bill Yuksel is Business Manager at Peridot Partners. He supports progressive students’ unions to recruit brilliant leaders.