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Well-being in Education – what if building flourishing institutions was the answer?

The following post was written by Fabienne Vailes, Language Director for French at the University of Bristol, holder of a University Teaching Fellowship, BILT Associate and author of ‘The Flourishing Student’.

Mental health issues and problems in students have been regularly highlighted by the press and the media. The Guardian has a whole section called ‘mental health: a university crisis’. And more recently came reports that academics in Higher Education are not immune to this stress and suffer from an ‘epidemic of poor mental health’[1].

When we know that our stress is not just contagious but that it alters the brain of others[2], it’s hardly surprising, is it?

As students are focused on their end of year exams or finals and staff are working equally as hard to mark their work or to process their marks, now seems like a good time to reflect on all this and explain why building a flourishing institution which lays the foundations and provides the framework and environment for all its participants to not just survive but flourish is vital.

A flourishing institution that bucks the ‘mental health crisis trend, provides opportunities and resources that enable everyone to utilise their talents fully, develop positive and nurturing relationships, and where a sense of community, support and social justice are the norm.   Impossible, given the current climate?  Let’s see…

WHY ARE STUDENTS AND STAFF SO STRESSED?

In recent interviews, students reported that their main sources of stress are academic workload and pressure, social media, fear for the future, financial worries, fear of not finding a job, relationship issues, difficulties in transitioning from secondary school to HE.

Staff talked about ‘excessive workloads, lack of job security, lack of support and pressure from managers’ to name but a few.

Although the source of stress might seem different, what students and staff currently have in common is that they all experience the consequences of the current external environment which is becoming ever more volatile and challenging. This, it would appear increases their level of stress and ‘isolates and spotlights individuals’[3]. It also generates a ‘survival mindset’, a fear which motivates individuals to become perfectionists and competitive and in turn afraid of failure. This would explain the ‘cut-throat’, ‘lack of camaraderie and collegiality’ mentioned in the press articles.

Our environment can clearly have an impact on our level of wellbeing and Maslow was right when he said that if our physiological, safety and security needs are not fulfilled it affects us deeply[4] Some like Michael Ungar argue that it is the most important factor.[5]

But what about all this talk about building resilient staff and students?

WELLBEING IN EDUCATION- A HOLISTIC APPROACH

Building resilience in staff and students has often been used as ‘the solution’ to ‘the mental health crisis’. The truth is that we would all like to find a magic solution that would suit every single person, but the reality is that just as we are all unique individuals, so too are the solutions that will help us manage and improve our wellbeing. There is no once size fits all, no magic wand or silver bullet.

Instead of focusing on resilience, we need to create a workplace culture that encourages compassion to oneself, where self-care is normalised. This requires a more holistic approach to our wellbeing which focuses on caring for and managing not just our mental health but also on social, physical, emotional and spiritual health.

What if the black-and-white thinking used in recent years (either blaming the environment or the lack of student’s or staff’s resilience) was not the only way forward?

WE ARE ALL PART OF THE PROBLEM… AND THE SOLUTIONS

Seligman said that student wellbeing is a condition (or pre-requisite) for effective learning [6]

But he forgot to add that so is staff wellbeing. One cannot happen without the other. I would also add a third element in the mix. Our environment plays an important role in our wellbeing.

None of the above elements are more important than the other.

We can either look at the current situation in Higher Education and choose the simple cause and effect thinking which suggests that for example university life or that the increased workload are causing students and staff to become more and more stressed  or we can choose to look at it from the lens of Systems Thinking.

Systems Thinking brings a balance between ‘holistic thinking’ versus ‘reductionist thinking’. It shows how any set of distinct parts that interact with each other form a complex whole and how the parts are intimately interconnected and highly interdependent. It does not consider the parts in isolation and looks at how the various parts of the system interact with each other and through a web of interrelated actions produce behaviours and results and lead to effects on each other.

Senge defines it as a ‘the ability to see the consequences of our own action. It points out to the connections in any situations because very often we are reacting to an immediate situation and we fail to see how things that we did or happened in the past might have contributed to it and how things have unfolded over time.’ [7]

If we integrate this idea of Systems thinking, we recognise that all participants in a system are part of the problem and part of the solution. It encourages us to look at the issues experienced, try to understand how they have arisen and to gain more understanding and perspective to discover ways to deal with things differently.

Senge adds that to do this, it is important to have a very deep and persistent commitment to learning and we must be prepared to be wrong. For him, if it was obvious what we ought to be doing, then we would already be doing it.

HOW TO CREATE A FLOURISHING INSTITUTION WITH FLOURISHING STUDENTS AND STAFF?

We all know that our environment is getting tougher. Everyone is expected to do more at a higher quality with less resources. It’s not about incremental changes anymore but all about quantum innovation. All actors in HE face more complex and bigger challenges.

We all respond to these challenges differently. Some of us tend to focus on the things we can change and some of us on the things we cannot change. It is not right or wrong, that’s the way it is but the first step forward is to recognise what is true for us.

As mentioned previously, fear triggers a ‘survival mindset’ which encourages us to focus on our own needs and to protect ourselves. It’s completely normal and part of our make-up. Survival of the fittest anyone?

If we are honest, we might even be willing to admit that regardless of what part we play in the system, we have mainly been focused on our individual aims and outcomes. Students just want a good degree in the next 3 or 4 years to get a good job ; many staff just want to focus on their research, on publishing papers, on just teaching their topic, to get the promotion ; senior leaders are focused on finding ways to ‘future proof’ HE. How can a system work when most of its parts are focused on their individualistic approach?

Through Systems thinking, it may be time for Higher Education to take a hard look at how all the relationships between all the actors, stakeholders and external factors (which include parents, employers, secondary schools, government, policy makers etc) affect each other rather than treating each part in isolation.

It will help us not only see but understand how an improvement in one area of a system (i.e focus on student well-being or student experience) can inadvertently aversively affect another area of the system (staff well-being).

We can then start promoting real organizational communication at all levels to avoid silos and to improve interactions between the elements that compose the system that is an HE institution (and any system for that matter).

This is what is increasingly happening in the big global organisations (google, facebook, etc).

If we can create a community which fosters diversity, inclusion, a sense of autonomy, the development of abilities and strengths to create positive relationships and partnerships then we can all start flourishing, and this will in turn lead to a flourishing institution. This is what is truly needed for the next 10-20 years.

When we start our reflection on how to create a flourishing institution – all participants in the system need to think about what is within their locus of control and what they choose and want to focus on. We also all need to reflect on how we are part of the system, part of the problem and of the solution.

Once we have done this, we might also want to look at the Canadian’s approach to ‘positive mental health’[8] (see image below) and to consider how we can foster wellbeing in education through a caring and compassionate environment and how each one of us can influence:

at an individual level?

At the family level (our team)?

At community (school/Faculty)?

At the institutional level?

At society level?

Emerging evidence confirms that student wellbeing can be cultivated and supported through intentional curriculum design. .[9]  And I believe that it would benefit not only students but also staff.

But only when we have focused on a systemic approach and started managing relationships across the different silos of our institutions, can we start looking at how we can embed wellbeing in the curriculum, develop a flourishing institution so that all actors cannot merely survive but flourish and succeed in Higher Education, whatever their goals are.

And yes, this may seem like a utopia and I most certainly won’t pretend I have THE answer. What I believe though, as Gandhi said is that ‘we need to be the change we want to see in the world’ and that it starts with each one of us.

Sometimes this might involve simple things such as access to a staff room or a place to get together with others to talk and debrief, the ability to refuse some of the accepted workplace culture (i.e. to work long hours or answer emails in the evening or over the weekend, to come to work when ill or not to take all of our annual leave, particularly when staffing is under-resourced) or simply to take the time to have a proper lunch break or to say ‘thank you’.

So, what will YOU do today to start this new movement toward a flourishing education?

Published on 6/6/2019.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/may/23/higher-education-staff-suffer-epidemic-of-poor-mental-health

  1. [2] Toni-Lee Sterley, Dinara Baimoukhametova, Tamás Füzesi, Agnieszka A. Zurek, Nuria Daviu, Neilen P. Rasiah, David Rosenegger, Jaideep S. Bains. Social transmission and buffering of synaptic changes after stressNature Neuroscience, 2018; DOI: 10.1038/s41593-017-0044-6

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/may/21/cut-throat-half-academics-stressed-thinking-leaving

[4] Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396. Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper.

[5] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-put-down-the-self-help-books-resilience-is-not-a-diy-endeavour/?utm_medium=Referrer:+Social+Network+/+Media&utm_campaign=Shared+Web+Article+Links

[6] Seligman, M.E (2012) Chapter 1: What is well-being? Flourish@ A visionary New understanding of Happiness and well-being (p.5-29). New York: Simon & Schuster.

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V38HrPnYkHI

Senge, P.M. (1990) The Fifth discipline: the art & practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency

[8]  https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/reports-publications/health-promotion-chronic-disease-prevention-canada-research-policy-practice/vol-36-no-1-2016/monitoring-positive-mental-health-its-determinants-canada-development-positive-mental-health-surveillance-indicator-framework.html

[9] Slavin, S.J., Schindler, D. L. & Chibnall, J.T. (2014). Medical student mental health 3:0: improving student wellness through curricular changes. Academic Medicine, 89(4), 573-577.

Tang, S & Ferguson, A (2014). The possibility of wellbeing: Preliminary results from surveys of Australian professional legal education students. QUT Law Review, 14(1): 27-51

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