Year on year, the process of the Union elections cherry-picks those who are some of the most vulnerable to lead us as sabbatical officers.
This makes sense – those who have experienced difficulties during their time at Imperial are the ones who know the system, and the ones who are most likely to be passionate about it. This isn’t always the case, of course: we have a lot of egomaniacs and people posturing to be career politicians who have very long-term goals in mind. But the person who has had experience with the mental health support at Imperial is more likely to want to improve it by donating their time as DPW. The person who wouldn’t have made it through second year without their sports team is going to want to be DPCS to make sure that everyone else has the same opportunities. The person who nearly failed third year but didn’t because of their academic support may turn out to be passionate enough to run for DPE.
And this isn’t a bad thing. These are the people who’ve needed the resources most, the ones who know how powerful the Union can be. They truly do care (probably too much), unlike the majority of students who get in and out with their degree, never pausing to look back. They aren’t the ones who wanted the most bang for their buck, taking advantage of what was on offer without ever giving back.
But, students who meet the criteria that qualify them as a strong sabbatical candidate are being thrown into the pressure cooker environment of the Union, and left high and dry when it comes to receiving any kind of support through the process.
Both during campaigning and after it (whether or not they have been elected) there is a distinct lack of support for the students who are putting themselves out there, putting their heart and soul into something they believe in. Campaigning is immensely stressful for everyone, and for those who are unsuccessful, it can be a massive blow. In the past, the Union has run sessions ahead of the elections to let people know what they’re in for, what being a sabb is like, and to give them tips on how to cope with it. That doesn’t seem to have materialised this year, leaving this year’s candidates potentially unprepared.
Some sabbs get lucky, and enter a full team of Union staff who are able to manage their workload and support them. But others enter the teams that the ever-present staff shortages have hit hardest, forcing them to push themselves to fill a full time staff role as well as meeting manifesto points that they’re held accountable to achieve.
But the sabbs are just students. They are not fully fledged graduates who have applied for these jobs. They are students who have been given these roles, with very little experience relevant to being a trustee of a multi million pound charity, because they care. And it’s this determination to better things and to care that can be a detriment to their mental health.
These days, each sabb has a line manager who is responsible for them, whether that means supervising their email traffic, assigning them tasks, or ensuring they are staying on track. But when it takes five months to give Union welfare officers mental health first aid training that was due during the handover at the beginning of the year, how can we expect each of the senior management group to be trained to handle the mental health of the students under their care? The way that sabbatical officers are being handled poses a huge risk to their mental health, one that the Union is steadfastly refusing to acknowledge or take any steps to mitigate. In the absence of any staffing problems, if the Union functioned as a well-oiled machine, then these roles might be suitable, but thanks to poor management, the sabbs are the ones who are suffering.
The Union is being irresponsible. Irresponsible in the way that it is recruiting candidates without fully preparing them, and irresponsible in the way it’s failing to support them. There is a long legacy of ex-sabbatical officers dealing with their mental health fallout for years following their time at the Union, and it’s a trend that needs to stop now.
Hopefully one day soon the Union will take notice of the trail of sabbs it’s leaving in its wake, but when you’re watching the future sabbs battle it out on Meet the Candidates, spare a thought for just how much they’re giving up for your sakes. And if you’re planning on running for a sabbatical position, for God’s sake make sure you take care of yourself, because no one else will.