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Pouring from an empty cup: poor university staff wellbeing is an impossible ground for high quality teaching

18 May 2022 | Barbara Bassa In this month’s tweetchat, Barbara Bassa invites you to explore the importance of staff wellbeing and organisational wellbeing in providing quality experiences for students in universities and in ensuring student success.

There is no argument about the fact that the quality of student experience at university starts with the quality of the services provided by the university staff: academics and professional support staff. In order for all staff to provide these quality experiences, they need to feel well and supported themselves. “You cannot pour from an empty cup”.

The pivot to online teaching caused significant disturbance to both staff and students. For staff, job insecurity, loneliness, new ways of working and a shift in professional identity, increased workloads, pressure to deliver high quality services, the inability to detach from work and maintain healthy work-life balance, have significantly impacted on staff wellbeing. These conditions placed an additional burden on the workforce that had been at a high risk of overload, job-related stress and poor mental health, even before the pandemic.

In 2021 almost 1,200 HE employees from 92 UK universities participated in a survey to reflect on the state of their wellbeing. Half said they had experienced chronic emotional exhaustion, worry, stress and poor mental health during the academic year 2020/21. This is 1.5 times worse than in other sectors (Dougall, et al., 2021).

The situation is likely to deteriorate further, as indicated by a 2022 survey of almost 7,000 university staff from over 100 institutions conducted by University and College Union, which indicated that two-thirds of university staff are considering leaving the sector within five years over cuts to pensions and deteriorating pay and working conditions. These figures pose a real threat to the higher education sector: staff and future students.

The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a high toll on university staff’s mental and emotional health and made wellbeing an urgent issue to look at and address. There have been some efforts to tackle it through local and national initiatives, such as “Stepchange: mentally healthy universities”, a refreshed strategic framework for a whole university approach to mental health and wellbeing.

However, regardless of these efforts, over 50% of staff suffer from depression and almost 30% show the signs of burnout and feel emotionally drained from work ‘every day.’ Seeking help does not seem to be an option for many academics and related staff, who believe that the psychological health of employees is not seen as important and worry that asking for help may be seen as weakness. They also say that they do not have time to look for help due to heavy workloads and inflexible schedules (Wray & Kinman, 2021).

And here is a dilemma: if the organisational wellbeing is so poor, how can we create healthy conditions for students to learn? How can we expect staff who are stressed, exhausted, and burned out, to deliver high quality, innovative and inspiring teaching and support for students? We have enough evidence from brain biology and innovation research to prove that it is not possible to be truly creative when we are stressed and constantly operate in a survival mode.

In 2021 three-in-four students expressed concerns about their experiences at university and many suffered from poor health and lack of wellbeing (Neves & Hewitt, 2021). There was a number of factors that contributed to it, including the fact that the tuition fees have not changed in the absence of in-person teaching, that contact hours decreased and there were very few or no opportunities to interact with staff and other students. To what extent the decline of staff wellbeing contributed to it, we do not know as we currently do not measure it. However, there is some evidence from research that it may be a contributing factor. For example (Madigan & Kim, 2020) proved that  teacher burnout affects the students they teach and that academic burnout may have implications for students’ performance, motivation, and wellbeing.

Organisational wellbeing in the higher education sector needs to be considered at multiple levels: nationally through changing governmental policy and guidance; strategically through building wellness culture into an overall strategy, creating conditions of psychological safety and implementing holistic wellbeing models; and operationally through equipping managers and leaders in resources and skills to support wellbeing of all staff.

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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