The forgotten mental health crisis: pressures on staff

The mental well-being of students has become a key priority within university settings. Student counselling and well-being services have expanded across many universities in the United Kingdom and internationally, and there is now much greater awareness of the mental well-being needs of students across university institutions.

The psychological well-being of university staff, in contrast, has traditionally been a marginalised issue.

However, in 2020, with the rapid spread of COVID, the well-being of university staff has been negatively impacted and as a result of this there is beginning to be an increasing focus on providing support to university staff.

But much of this support comprises unfacilitated online training material and the dissemination of information rather than well-being packages that are actively delivered by trained mental health facilitators who can provide a safe and contained space within which to psycho-educate and empower members of staff.

I aim to explore not only some of the mental well-being challenges facing staff working within universities, including looking at some of the significant impacts of COVID, but also the ways in which universities can enhance the psychological well-being of their staff, so that staff are less likely to experience extreme psychological distress, resulting in time off work.

The focus is on academic staff – researchers, teachers and postgraduate researchers who contribute to departmental teaching and research outputs.

Additional pressures

Academia can offer an incredible career fuelled by the motivation to learn, to understand issues at a deeper level, to share with and teach others those things that your research has revealed, to have national and international policy and practice impact.

Nevertheless, as a result of the globalisation and commodification of higher education, academic staff have experienced their workloads substantially increasing at the expense of healthy feelings of joy, curiosity and compassion, often leaving academics feeling low, anxious and overwhelmed.

The additional pressures that staff now face as a result of COVID include, in some cases, pressure to provide face-to-face teaching on campus (as this is seen as a unique selling point of universities), increasing workloads as a result of having to feed online learning platforms and also having to take on additional duties as a result of self-isolating and-or unwell colleagues.

Added to this, the loss of coffee breaks and informal interactions with colleagues has affected how connected staff feel, possibly impacting newer members of staff more, leading to feelings of isolation.

What can universities do?

Faced with the issues outlined above, what can university management do in order to place the mental well-being of staff at the centre of university life?

Universities have begun to provide some well-being training for staff, perhaps motivated partly by COVID and by policy developments. For example, in the UK there has been the StepChange: Mentally healthy universities document published by Universities UK in May 2020, where staff mental well-being is included.

A key point to highlight is that any well-being programmes aimed at enhancing individual resilience should be facilitated programmes – individuals should not be working on their own online with no facilitator present.

This is because, when exploring our mental well-being needs and how we might respond to these, it is important to do so in a safe space, as issues and events in our lives can be opened up which can then have a negative impact. As a result, any well-being packages need to be facilitated by trained professionals who can contain and normalise any emotional or psychological triggers and responses that people may have.

Any well-being package should also contain tools that people can use to enhance their own well-being. At the same time, universities’ strategic leadership should facilitate ways in which academic staff can re-engage with healthy and positive emotions like joy, curiosity and compassion.

These have been impacted negatively by the stress of rising workloads and also by the global pandemic. It is through feeding positive emotions that academic staff can re-invigorate their motivation, creativity and productivity.

At Mental Wellbeing Services we have put together a facilitated online training package specifically for academic staff. Designed by myself, an academic, psychotherapist and mental health trainer, and Michelle Overton, a psychotherapist and mental health trainer, the package focuses on how individuals can improve their own well-being while also improving their creativity and offers some key therapeutic techniques that academics can use for their own well-being, with a well-being toolkit being something that everyone taking the package comes away with which they can apply to their everyday professional lives.

This training package is facilitated by mental well-being practitioners, so training is offered in a safe environment.

The mental well-being of staff at universities across the world has tended to be overlooked by the leadership of higher education institutions. Nonetheless, COVID perhaps signifies a game-changer in that it is now unethical for university leaders to continue to ignore the mental well-being needs of staff.

Professor Basia Spalek is co-director of Mental Wellbeing Services UK.