The relationship between academic staff wellbeing and student wellbeing is currently under-researched, however work in other educational settings has clearly established a link between the teacher and the taught. In primary, secondary and College settings the mental health and wellbeing of teachers has an evidenced impact on student wellbeing (1-2). Qualitative research in Higher Education suggests that this holds true in universities, with students and staff indicating that they recognise the potential for the wellbeing of lecturers to impact on the wellbeing and learning of students (3).
This means that staff wellbeing is not only important in and of itself (because staff are entitled to be able to maintain good wellbeing) but also carries extra importance because of its potential impact on students. If staff are overworked, highly stressed and/or experiencing burn out, this is likely to have a negative impact on student wellbeing and learning. If staff are well rested, feel psychologically safe, motivated and engaged this is likely to have a positive impact.
There are a number of mechanisms that may explain this phenomenon.
- There is clear evidence that the relationship between academics and students is a key factor in student learning, achievement and wellbeing (4-5). Research suggests that when students perceive lecturers to be available, engaged and interested in them as people, it increases their sense of belonging, confidence and wellbeing. However, the ability to create and maintain relationships is a higher order function that requires energy, spare cognitive capacity and the availability of positive emotions. However willing they are, staff who are exhausted or highly stressed will have fewer of these resources and will therefore be less engaged and available than they would be if rested and psychologically well.
- Research with students (and the beliefs of the students in our co-creation panel) also demonstrates that the quality of teaching they receive has an influence on their wellbeing and learning (6). Teaching (particularly to large groups) requires high levels of energy, stamina, concentration and performance. When done well, teaching is constantly responding and adapting to the students in the room. It is simply less possible to do this well if high levels of emotional arousal and low levels of energy are reducing a lecturer’s cognitive and emotional capacity.
- High levels of emotional arousal can lower our ability to be aware of our environment (7). As a consequence, academic staff will be less likely to notice students who may be struggling academically or personally – not because they are not interested and do not care but simply because they currently do not have the capacity to notice and absorb that information. This reduces the possibility that students will receive timely interventions.
- Among human beings, emotions and behaviours are contagious (8). Mental health is often not the experience of an individual – when one person begins to experience mental health problems it can quickly impact on those around them. When students see staff working long hours and constantly exhausted and stressed, they become more likely to adopt those behaviours and experiences. This is a form of unconscious modelling.
- There are logical reasons to believe that there may be links between wellbeing and the quality of curriculum design. Research has shown links between wellbeing and levels of creativity – it is easier to be creative and seek new solutions when an individual has good wellbeing (9-10). Alternatively, exhausted and anxious individual academics and teams are more likely reach for previous solutions and familiar practices, rather than expending energy they do not have seeking new and better approaches.
It should be clearly understood, that in these circumstances no blame can be attached to staff whose ability to perform has been eroded by poor wellbeing. There is clear evidence that many university staff have higher levels of stress and burnout than the general population and low levels of wellbeing. Human brains have a maximum cognitive load – when overworked and overstressed, they cannot function to the same level (11-12).
When considering how to support student wellbeing through the curriculum, the wellbeing of academic staff then becomes central. Those delivering the curriculum will play a key role in how it affects students. However well designed or intentioned a curriculum might be, if it is delivered by exhausted, highly stressed or ill staff it has the potential to have a negative impact. The reverse of this is also true, skilled academic staff who are well rested and have spare cognitive and emotional capacity can overcome flaws in curriculum design, to ensure a positive impact on student wellbeing and learning.
Maintaining good staff wellbeing requires a whole university response – as set out in the University Mental Health Charter (13). Research in workplace settings clearly shows that staff wellbeing benefits from feelings of control, engagement in work they find meaningful, a supportive culture, work life balance, regular rest and psychological safety. This has clear implications for university processes, the training of managers, the development of healthy cultures and reactive support services.
- The wellbeing of university staff is important in and of itself.
- There is a clear and explainable relationship between staff wellbeing and student wellbeing.
- Universities must take a whole university approach to staff wellbeing if they wish to impact positively on student wellbeing.
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