Spring is perhaps my favourite season. Watching my seeds on the windowsill sprout up and preparing them for transfer to the vegetable beds is very satisfying and an action that definitely supports my own wellbeing. In the first blog I wrote for the University Bulletin, almost two years ago at the beginning of the first lockdown, I reflected on the fact that my day might start with coffee in Gail’s and bumping into colleagues on Little Clarendon St or between meetings – for me it is wonderful that I am once again able to experience those interactions. I have learned that they too have an important role in maintaining my own resilience and wellbeing. As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, having been tested and stretched to our limits, I imagine I’m not alone in becoming more aware of my own needs in maintaining and achieving a positive sense of wellbeing. Everyone’s approach to their mental and physical health may be different but at times we may all feel we need help.
During the last two years the University has worked to support staff through the difficulties of the pandemic and during the last year a very active Wellbeing Programme board has created the first University-wide strategy for staff wellbeing. The board’s vision for the University was articulated as ‘everyone being supported to feel and perform at their best as part of the University community’. The strategy builds on a wealth of activities across the University and has identified areas needing further investment. A team from across the University is coming together to launch the strategy, with the initial phase ‘Thriving at Oxford’ and a new staff counselling service planned to begin this term.
It is not only the pandemic that has tested our wellbeing. Last term saw the completion of the USS valuation and now we are working on the next steps, which include the review of the governance of the scheme and the more fundamental work to reconfigure the scheme into a more sustainable and hopefully better-value proposition. I won’t say more about that here as some of you will be fed up of hearing me talk about it, but we will keep the USS hub up to date as we go forward. Although the valuation is completed, the discussion of the USS investment strategy is still underway – you will see a further letter from the University in collaboration with other institutions pushing back on the proposals with strongly evidenced arguments. As ever, I am very grateful to our more knowledgeable colleagues who are working on these continuing elements of the discussions.
And today the main headline in my newspaper was the fact that we have hit a 30-year high in terms of inflation rate. It is now at 7% and set to increase. Our pay packets this month will also see the impact of the increased national insurance rate. This is of course of significant concern for many colleagues. As the University considered our input into the national pay negotiation, we recognised the likely impact of inflation and particularly the difficulties this will cause for lower-paid colleagues. While the Oxford Living Wage helps, we recognise it does not meet the pressures of this present inflationary peak. There have been many discussions in recent months at various University committees including Council regarding pay and reward; the focus has to date been on the impact of USS pensions, but the present inflation rate does put a different lens on where we need to focus our efforts. While we won’t be able to match the level of inflation, we will do our best to mitigate its impact while protecting the University’s finances, and will keep in touch with you in the coming weeks.