Ask anyone from pre-schoolers to university graduates, office workers to musicians, what they miss during the restrictions imposed by COVID-19, and most will tell you it’s human contact.
While facetime and zoom calls are better than nothing, we hunger for the time we can simply be together again.
The impact of physical distancing and isolation on wellbeing and mental health, is gaining prominence in the media and public debate as lockdowns lengthen and the links between us become more difficult to maintain. The World Health Organisation is clear in its advice: stay connected, maintain a healthy life style, take pleasure in what you have and seek help if you need it.
The team at Aga Khan Education Service, India (AKES,I) have taken the advice about wellbeing seriously and have put in place a range of activities to do just that – keep their 550 plus staff connected, engaged and happy.
Along with the true and the tried, the whacky and the wonderful are all part of the strategy. Tactics range from posting ‘Monday Motivational Messages’, sending out authoritative information about mental health during the COVID outbreak, providing tips on working efficiently from home and giving yoga advice. AKES,I is even piloting virtual induction programmes for new employees.
All are in the mix and staff are responding enthusiastically.
The popular work-from-home selfie competition resulted in 150 entries. Gratitude week saw an avalanche of thank you cards exchanged, and generated a long, long list of people, places and actions staff are grateful for in this time of lockdown. AKES,I leaders even found a way to publically celebrate Mother’s day with female colleagues sharing photographs of themselves and with their children.
Asha Joseph, a teacher at Diamond Jubilee High School, Hyderabad acknowledges, “It was really a pleasure and a surprise when we received all wonderful and inspirational messages from our CEO. They gave us the feel of a family, that we stand united even in these difficult moments.”
Shashank Sood, a Coordinator in the Gujarat Regional office says the same, “The mails really helped a lot to deal with the situation when working from home, to know do’s and don’ts, exercise, tips for improving connectivity. They motivated me and also helped me to get updated on this current pandemic.”
But it’s the personal connections that have won teachers’ hearts and had them scrambling to engage.
Simple gestures have made a world of difference – scheduling regular non-work related conversations between staff over tea/coffee (Chai pe Charcha) where hidden talents can be showcased or frustrations shared, zoom birthday celebrations, even a mad hatters party where the stranger the hats, caps, bandanas and hair bands the better. Easy, quick and frequent these virtual interactions reduce feelings of isolation and keep people connected.
One key strategy, while it involved many person hours, has had a profound effect on morale – a cross functional team including the CEO and senior managers as well as human resources, finance and communications officers from the AKESI Head and Regional Offices, pitched in to telephone and speak personally to every teacher and school leader to ask about their wellbeing and how their family was faring.
“I couldn’t even begin to believe my ears when team members called and showed their concern about our wellbeing. Their wishes for peace and strength during our difficult times gave us courage; they really transformed us to the comfort zone and brought back happier feelings.” said Hameeda Fakarni a teacher at Little Star High School, Adilabad.
Similar sentiments were expressed by Sharmila Naicker a teacher at Aga Khan School Sidhpur, “When I received a call from HR office really, I felt very proud of my AKES,I family. They called us to know our family wellness. I don't know how many institutions are taking care of the well-being of a staff's family during this unpredictable situation, but I was astonished and had a heart full of joy and content when I got the call. It's normal that our family, friends, relatives or neighbours care for us but it is the first experience in my lifetime that my workplace cares for safety and security of its staff in this manner.”
Research tells us that keeping our minds active and learning new skills also contribute to good mental health, so the AKES,I team have focused on continuing to professionally develop staff. Webinars on mindfulness or time management for some, online research for others and most importantly, every teacher has been linked to a technology mentor.
“Mentors are handholding, guiding the teachers, students and parents in adopting new technologies like Zoom, MS forms, Teno, Padlet, Hangouts, Webex etc. Mentors are guiding through messages, sending links, creating tutorials, instructions in Pdf, video calls and screen sharing. They enjoy helping teachers, students and parents.” said Giridhar Reddy, Principal at Aga Khan School Mundra. He concludes, “Mentors are learning more than the students and teachers because they are exploring every doubt and query.”
The most recent idea to come from the wellbeing team has been the awarding of E-certificates to show appreciation to staff who have stepped up in the COVID crisis. They are already overwhelmed with candidates!
UNESCO estimates that over 63 million teachers are affected by the COVID-19 emergency, with their schools closed and their students trying to learn from home. It is reassuring to know that the staff of AKES,I are being taken care of.