As part of the Advance HE Small Development Projects 2019 focusing on the metal health and wellbeing of students, Cardiff Business School developed a series of short films and other creative outputs to Integrate mental wellbeing and raising awareness within the teaching programme. Professor Julian Gould-Williams, Director of Undergraduate Studies, details the project below.
Cardiff Business School undertook a student wellbeing and mental health project during January – May 2019. The purpose of this project was threefold:
First, we wanted to identify key stress triggers experienced by students studying at the School. Potential remedies were proposed for future actions.
Second, the project built on prior work in which the Business School had developed a set of values based on its Public Value mission, along with the Dignity at Work and Study Statement.
And third, we sought to develop proactive communication strategies which included:
- Integrating mental health well-being and raising awareness within the teaching programme
- The production of short Powtoon videos based on how to deal with Exam Stress
- Final drafting of the Dignity at Work and Study statement
- Production of Dignity at Work and Study posters and pull-up
Prior to the commencement of the Advance HE grant, the Business School was in the process of finalising a Dignity at Work and Study Statement. This statement applies equally to staff and students. The statement highlights the importance of considering staff and student wellbeing and mental health by creating a climate where individuals feel empowered to speak up and raise their concerns in a safe environment.
The Advance HE grant built on this foundation and the project has resulted in communication tools that will be helpful in reinforcing key wellbeing messages.
Throughout this project and extending beyond, the School has adopted a partnership approach and has closely worked with others especially the university’s Student Support team. Staff and students within the School were also consulted on the development of the key outputs, namely the Dignity at Work and Study statement, the Powtoon videos and posters.
Adopting a partnership approach optimises the quality of the outcomes as expertise in different fields is shared. Although this approach takes more time to achieve the end results, there is more buy-in and ownership of the outcomes.
A core feature of our project was the involvement of students in identifying and proposing remedies for stress-triggers which arose during their studies at Cardiff. The discussions highlighted how the School could consider changes in its approach to assessment and feedback, timetabling and the personal tutor system to ease student anxiety and stress.
Students were keen for the School to create more opportunities to socialise and develop a sense of community. Staff-student cooperation in arranging events and promoting change was encouraged. For instance, students recommended a Chill Out Zone or an area for students to meet when they felt the need to relax and socialise on the School’s premises. The suggestion was that the Zone should include activities that helped students ‘take their minds off’ study, such as adult colouring books, games, arts and crafts. Based on these recommendations, the School introduced a Chill Out Zone during the exam period offering students free teas and coffees and activities, which included beading and jewellery-making.
Student wellbeing and mental health cannot be considered in isolation of other activities that take place within the School and beyond. Consideration of wellbeing should be mainstreamed throughout the curricula, timetabling, assessment and feedback as well as approaches to tutoring and activities that take place off campus (eg international and national visits).
The most effective approach is partnership with internal and external stakeholders, bringing together different expertise to holistically address student wellbeing. Effectiveness largely depends on everyone appreciating their contributions to promote student wellbeing and positive mental health no matter how small. Ownership, signposting and compassion are critical.
Key learnings and challenges
i. Assessment and feedback
Issues relating to assessment clustering, tight deadlines for submission, short revision periods creating unnecessary stress. Students requested that reading and revision weeks should be timetabled into the programme.
Clearer guidance on assessment criteria with marking criteria that was made available in advance and used when grading assignments.
Group working was considered to be stressful due to not having the skills to deal with free-loaders, over-powering personalities and overseas students.
ii. Lectures, socialising and events
Students highlighted that absence at lectures did not necessarily mean that students were ‘lazy’ or ‘disinterested’. Instead it could reflect social anxiety or other mental health issues.
iii. Student Mentoring
Student mentoring was seen as a way of reducing stress and anxiety due to uncertainty especially for PhD students. Having queries addressed directly by those who have already experienced them was considered helpful. Mentors could re-align thoughts or dispel ‘myths’ about the programme and expectations.
iv. Student Support and Form-Filling.
The level of support was considered poor as students have to wait months for consultation appointments. Also, many students were unaware of the in-house support provided by the School, although when used was highly commended.
Students mentioned difficulty completing extenuating circumstances forms.
There appeared to be a general lack of awareness about the support the Business School provides.
Students suggested the School could provide classes in dealing with stress and anxiety eg mindfulness techniques and yoga.
Some expressed concern about contacting student support due to ‘labelling’ and stigma.
v. Creation of ‘safe spaces’ within the School.
Students requested ‘safe spaces’ where they could chill-out and talk to other students knowing that they are there because they want to chat.
vi. Study workload and pressures
High demands placed on students due to programme design particularly for postgraduate taught students. Extra-curricular activities, sports and societies’ activities had to be curtailed.
vii. Review of personal tutor system.
There was a feeling that there wasn’t enough pastoral support or strong enough relationship with personal tutors. They wanted personal tutors to be more proactive in getting in touch with students. Students often felt that personal tutors were too busy and that they had to persist in order to get help.
viii. Mental awareness training
The School should consider providing on-line training in diversity awareness, sexual health, mental health and fire safety (c.f. the School of Medicine).
ix. Creation of Mental Health or Well-Being Club/Social group
It was suggested that an informal peer support group that met to ‘check-in’ and talk with each other should be considered. They could arrange short walks in the park, mindfulness and other sessions, along with craft and arts activities.
Engagement, communication and impact
The different student communities across the School have had opportunities to engage with the wellbeing and mental health project and share in activities designed to assist their wellbeing (eg the creation of the Chill Out Zone which was undertaken following consultation with students).
The university has published the 'Dealing with Exam Stress' Powtoon videos which have been uploaded onto their intranet site.
The College is also keen to learn lessons from the Dignity at Work and Study leaflet and share the principles across Schools.
Next steps and dissemination
Further, we will disseminate our findings at key conferences such as the Association of University Administrators Annual Conference and Exhibition and the Chartered Association of Business Schools conference.
While we have developed several communication channels to ensure student wellbeing and mental health will be taken seriously by faculty and staff within the Business School, further work needs to be undertaken to main-stream wellbeing in curriculum development, student support, assessment types and timing, lecture timetabling, recreation and building design. To that end, lessons learnt from the Chill Out Zone pilot will be applied more broadly so that students will have allocated spaces within the School that promote social interaction and fun activities. Also, the School’s Facilities Team and Strategic Estates Working Group are seeking ways to create outside spaces for student and staff wellbeing, such as the wellbeing roof garden and the now accessible enclosed garden which is situated next to the newly refurbished student and staff lounge.