Module 3, Topic 1
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Theme 8: Staff Wellbeing

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What does it cover?

  • Workplace culture
  • Interventions to support good staff wellbeing
  • Support for staff who are experiencing problems with their mental health

Principles of good practice

8.1 Universities develop a culture and environment that supports good staff wellbeing and good workplace conditions.

8.2 Universities ensure staff feel able to discuss their own mental health and wellbeing and have access to effective, accessible support and proactive interventions to help them improve their own mental health and wellbeing.

8.3 Universities ensure staff feel psychologically safe to enable them to innovate, identify improvements and raise concerns about culture and practice that may impact on mental health.

8.4 Universities equip managers with the knowledge, skills and confidence to support good wellbeing within their teams and respond appropriately when staff experience poor mental health.

8.5 Universities enable staff to adopt and maintain healthy lifestyle and workplace behaviours.

8.6 Universities support staff to spend a significant proportion of their time on work that is meaningful to them and appropriate to their role.

Why is this theme important and what matters?

The wellbeing of staff is a crucial component of any genuine whole university approach to mental health. However, recent research indicates that university staff have higher levels of stress and burnout than the general population and low levels of wellbeing [123]. Significant numbers of university staff appear to have poor mental health, high levels of clinical distress and there has been a significant increase in the numbers of staff accessing support [134].

Whilst this has rightly received significant attention in national discourse, it should be noted that studies have found significant variation between and within universities [5]. Not all university staff have poor mental health. Universities can be places in which staff are able to pursue meaningful work, in a supported and stimulating environment, that benefits their wellbeing [6]. Good, or at least improved, mental health and wellbeing is not impossible and poor mental health should not be accepted as inevitable.

A number of factors have been identified as having negative consequences for university staff mental health. These include workload demands, administrative burdens, low levels of autonomy over work, lack of resources, job insecurity, poor management and extrinsic pressures, such as external audits and performance metrics, which may be outside of individual or group control [178]. These factors are seen to affect both academic and professional services staff, although the impacts present differently and have different effects [7]. In addition, staff have identified the consequences of consumerism and metrics in higher education as being negative for their wellbeing [9].

Supporting students who are experiencing poor mental health can also have negative consequences for staff wellbeing, if staff are not adequately prepared and supported [1011].

Local factors play a significant role in staff wellbeing. Having a supportive team and a good direct line manager has been shown to be important for good wellbeing, in both the literature and feedback from staff participants in the Charter consultation [59]. However, this can be precarious if not supported by the general culture of the university. This suggests a need for a combination of a general healthy culture and specific structures and practice, which ensure managers can and do support good wellbeing within their teams and respond appropriately to staff experiencing poor mental health.

Staff participants in the Charter consultations highlighted the
importance of being able to work on things which they find intrinsically meaningful and feeling that this work is noticed, valued and rewarded [3912].

Culture and environment, workplace conditions and the day to day experiences of staff are clearly vital in addressing staff mental health and wellbeing. This includes developing an environment in which conversations about mental health are possible and in which staff can identify any problems they may be experiencing, without fear of judgement or negative consequences for their career [914]. The provision of effective and easily accessible support (such as counselling) is an important part of this [1], whether provided internally or through external Employee Assistance Programmes. Any such provision must be effective, accessible highly visible to staff and with confidentiality boundaries clearly explained. Some research suggests that some university staff may be unaware of this support, when it is available, or unsure how confidential it will be [11].

Alongside addressing culture and working practice, specific interventions to support staff to improve their wellbeing and mental health can have a positive impact. Making it easier for staff to physically exercise, eat healthily, build healthy working relationships and address unhelpful thoughts and behaviours can be helpful for individuals and teams [1516]. However, unless these are supported by a healthy culture, staff may view such interventions sceptically. Workshops alone cannot overcome the challenges of a workplace that has negative impacts on mental health [9].

Improving staff wellbeing and mental health is an important issue in and of itself. However, it should be noted that participants in the Charter consultations (staff and students) clearly indicated that they saw a relationship between staff and student wellbeing [8]. This supports similar findings from research in school settings [17]. Universities are, in effect, an ecosystem in which wellbeing of one group can affect another. Any genuine whole–university approach should consider staff and student wellbeing as inextricably linked and supportive of the other.

In addition to this, there is a clear relationship between workplace wellbeing and performance [181920]. This appears to particularly be the case for complex, demanding and creative work such as teaching and research and there are firm connections between wellbeing and creativity and high level problem solving [82122]. Ensuring an environment in which staff feel psychologically safe is important both for the wellbeing of staff and for this higher level cognitive learning and productivity [2324]. This has implications for the wellbeing of PGR students, who may also be members of staff.

The core missions of universities, teaching and research, are better supported by a culture and community embedded in good mental health and wellbeing.

Suggested resources

Research from the Charter consultation – E. Cage, E. Jones, G. Ryan, G. Hughes & L. Spanner (2021) Student mental health and transitions into, through and out of university: student and staff perspectives

What Works Centre for Wellbeing – Work

Mind – Mental Health at Work Commitment, Guide for the Higher Education Sector


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