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A systemic approach: the key to embedding wellbeing

10 Feb 2021 | Fabienne Vailes and Imogen Moore Ahead of the Advance HE 'Mental Wellbeing and Staff in HE Symposium', 17 February, two of our roundtable contributors, Fabienne Vailes and Imogen Moore of the University of Bristol, highlight the need for a more systemic approach to wellbeing in higher education

We think and talk a lot about student wellbeing. Why wouldn’t we? Quite apart from its link to learning (see Vailes and also Hughes (2020:4)for example), no one in higher education will have been surprised by reports of increasing mental health issues among young people, even pre-dating Covid-19. 

But there is growing concern about staff wellbeing too. This shouldn’t prompt us to shift attention from student to staff wellbeing; the two are very much linked. Instead, we must expand our attention to higher education as a system with staff and students within this. Not only because student wellbeing cannot be at the expense of staff wellbeing, but because attempts to improve student wellbeing will be limited without such a systemic approach.   

A systemic approach 

Advance HE’s ‘Embedding Mental Wellbeing in the Curriculum’ collaborative project has shown the importance of a holistic approach to student wellbeing through programmes and institutions, rather than relying on ‘bolt-on’ responses to individual student distress or ad hoc modifications to particular challenges. But staff wellbeing often continues to be viewed either as an optional extra to be hived off to commercial providers of online support, or perhaps a luxury for when student satisfaction hits 100%. As noted by Professor Basia Spalek, the mental wellbeing of staff is too often the “poor relative” to student wellbeing (Flourishing education: podcast ep.46).   

Student and staff wellbeing cannot be viewed as distinct. Many factors leading to mental health and wellbeing issues among students are shared with staff, even if experiences differ. For example, both may be impacted by uncertainty over careers, worries about families and the future, overwork (through external demands or internal pressures including perfectionism), poorly managed change, imposter syndrome, competition, fear of failure, criticism, and lack of agency. While shared experience may encourage empathy, in truth stressed or anxious staff may find it harder to be empathetic, as Todd et al (2019) have argued.

 Importantly, the very steps taken to support student wellbeing (or to chase student ‘satisfaction’) may impact staff wellbeing if introduced with insufficient consultation, support and resource, and so may prove to be undeliverable or unsustainable.  

A more systemic approach is therefore required. Student wellbeing cannot be separated from the healthy functioning of the institution, and this includes staff wellbeing. Tweaking individual parts of an engine without a holistic view of its operation is unlikely to lead to a smooth journey. Bronfenbrenner shows how individual experience depends on multiple circles of influence from the immediate environment through to interactions with others, systems and culture, and also on how those influences interrelate. (Evans, 2020). Staff wellbeing is thus impacted by co-directional influences well beyond the individual’s experience and control.  

Moving forward 

Not all pressures originate within the institution. External policies, such as increased student numbers and external assessments, impact on staff wellbeing. While these lie towards the edge of Bronfenbrenner’s circles of influence, there is still multi-directionality. Staff need to see their institutions challenging policies of concern, and need to be consulted about translating external policies to practice. Where additional requirements or significant change result, these must be fully explained, supported and resourced.   

Institutional policies and practices require a holistic, systemic approach, considering potential impact on all actors in the system, not just a student perspective. A simple example: spreading submission dates or allowing flexible extensions might appear easy wins for student wellbeing. However a shift of marking burdens (with pressure for prompt return of quality feedback) into periods where markers have other commitments may lead to serious overwork or failure to meet institutional and student demands. Similarly, many institutions have sought to increase the quantity and quality of academic and personal support provided to students. But unless sufficient time and resource is allocated, any benefit will be limited: compromising staff wellbeing is likely to compromise the student experience, quite apart from the human cost. While student experience must be an important focus it is self-defeating to prioritise this at the expense of staff wellbeing.   

Many institutions do take proactive steps to support staff in their own wellbeing. But impact may be minimal if the wider system is overlooked. For example an institution may offer training in managing change or resilience-building, but without allocated time for developmental activity or reflection, either the benefits are limited or pressures on the individual increase. Or an institution may offer staff counselling, but if demand is underestimated or access restricted, staff may feel even less valued, or counsellors themselves overwhelmed (as with student counselling services).   

A systemic approach does not diminish the importance of personal responsibility and self-care. Just as students are encouraged to protect and improve their own wellbeing, staff too need to work on managing time, building resilience and focusing on our ‘circle of control’ (Covey, 1989). But this is not sufficient in itself. An individual can be urged to take personal responsibility and be willing to do so, but the system independently contributes to whether the individual is able to respond effectively and appropriately - whether the individual has response-ability, not just responsibility.  A flourishing institution must operate in a way that supports staff and students and nourishes that response-ability. As in student wellbeing, it is not enough to place the onus on the individual and just endeavour to pick up the pieces.   

What next? 

Staff wellbeing, not unlike student wellbeing, is particularly under threat when expectations seem unreasonable, undeliverable or are not understood; where change is unexplained or practice seems unfair; where experience appears to be overlooked or diminished; and where choice and agency are minimised rather than encouraged. ‘Positive management’ thus has a significant role to play in staff wellbeing (O Brien & Guinney 2018:9). An honest conversation is needed, within and beyond individual institutions. What can and should be expected of staff? What can and should be provided to students and on what terms? And since these may be misaligned, how can this be properly resourced? If staff wellbeing is not considered alongside that of students, a flourishing academy will remain out of reach.   

Fabienne Vailes and Imogen Moore 

Find out more and book your place on Advance HE's Mental Wellbeing and Staff in HE Symposium, 9:30 - 16:30, 17 February 2021

Fabienne Vailes is French Language Director at the University of Bristol and Director of Flourishing Education Ltd. She is the author of ‘The Flourishing Student’ and co-author of ‘How to Grow a Grown Up’.

Imogen Moore is Associate Professor in Law at the University of Bristol, and co-author of ‘The Successful Law Student’.


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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