Author: Pippa McLernon
How would things look, and more importantly feel, if wellbeing was placed at the heart of everything we do in HE? Are there any universities already operating this way? As someone who values the importance of maintaining mental health and wellbeing, my attention was caught by a workshop entitled ‘A Flourishing Approach to Education’ when I was browsing through the programme for the recent AUA National Conference in Manchester. It promised to challenge the model most universities currently work on, where academic attainment is prized above all else, and paint a picture of what it would be like if we instead prioritised the benefits of building on the strengths, talents and wellbeing of our staff and students.
The session was led by Rob Baker, Managing Director of Tailored Thinking, who set up his company to support organisations to reach their highest level of potential, using positive psychology and behavioural science. The focus is on people: getting the best out of them, supporting them and ultimately making the workplace a more nourishing, positive environment in which people can thrive. Sounds great doesn’t it? The theory can be applied to any sector, and he had tailored this particular session towards the world of HE.
But first, let’s acknowledge the bottom line when it comes to the culture and workings of a typical university: academic and research excellence are its reason for being. The session didn’t dispute this, but instead argued that these elements shouldn’t be the sole focus. After all, a university is made up of people - staff and students who have needs above and beyond academic timetabling and degree classifications. Without people everything would cease to function so their wellbeing ought to be supported. The session also challenged the notion of treating staff and students separately in this regard, suggesting we would be short-sighted in doing so as the two are so interlinked: staff need to feel and function well in order to support students to have a fulfilling university experience.
So, how do we move towards this culture of wellbeing in practice? For starters, we need to have a shared language and understanding of what wellbeing is. Wellbeing is very simply defined as feeling good and functioning well. The session proposed a ‘Holistic Wellbeing Tracker’ of five factors that can be used to help Universities develop a framework they can build upon:
- Visibility & Commitment (of a wellbeing strategy across the University)
- Learning & Development (resources and toolkits for supporting wellbeing)
- Health Promotion & Support (materials and events around wellbeing)
- Environment (to what extent do campus facilities support wellbeing?)
- Enablers (How are work life policies framed? Is there the opportunity to work flexibly or get involved in enriching activities such as volunteering, for example?)
In my opinion, universities (and workplaces generally) absolutely do have a responsibility to prioritise the wellbeing of their staff and students. However, the responsibility doesn’t solely lie with them. We all have the power to contribute to ensuring we work in a more positive, supportive culture. This is largely cultivated through small day-to-day acts which are often more powerful than any major strategy. Booking onto that Mental Health First Aid course you were meaning to go on, practicing empathy and effective communication when a student comes to ask for help, or displaying more self-care towards ourselves, as well as our fellow colleagues, are just a few of the ways we may be able to achieve this.
Reflecting on the current landscape here at Bath, it struck me that the Curriculum Transformation could present a major opportunity to prioritise student wellbeing. The overhaul of programmes could allow for space to be made for vital skills such as resilience and self-care, as well as incorporating some precious time to reflect as they progress through their university journey. It presents an opportunity for us to develop in students a more holistic range of skills, helping them to become world smart, not just book smart, as they prepare to navigate their working lives.
If we take a step back to consider the wellbeing approach in a wider context, it certainly does appear to fit with the way society is moving. Attitudes are changing. In recent years, the notion of looking after our mental health has gone from being completely off the radar, to being something that was ‘nice to do’, to something that is increasingly essential. The gradual diminishing of taboos mean it is discussed more, factored more in decision making, and is a more conscious element of our day-to-day lives. What’s more, research and statistics show that young people (including those in the typical 18-21 university student age bracket) are the most vulnerable. Just this month, Universities UK have released a report calling for urgent action to improve co-ordination of mental health services for students, in light of sharply rising demand. From a staff perspective, research also indicates that how well an organisation looks after their staff is a progressively important consideration for the millennial generation, who are gradually making up a more significant percentage of the workforce.
A number of universities around the world have already taken steps to be known as ‘Positive Universities’ – the University of Melbourne, University of Lisbon and the University of Buckingham here in the UK to name a few. By doing so, they are stating their commitment to placing wellbeing at the centre of everything they do – going as far as taking it into account for all business cases that pass through the ranks. It would be interesting to look at future research around these institutions to assess what difference this approach has made to their staff and students.
In the meantime, this workshop was certainly very convincing of the benefits of a wellbeing centred approach. For me personally, it also provided comfort and hope - hope that in a world that can feel increasingly pressurised, politically uncertain and economically strained that it is in fact still possible to go back to basics and put people first. Above all else, surely it’s the right thing to do.
BY: Pippa McLernon, Faculty of Science