Beware the futility of higher education’s wellness theatre

Surface-level emphasis on self-care without discussing systemic problems in HE runs the risk of gaslighting students who face very real barriers, says Fiona Rawle

Fiona Rawle's avatar
20 May 2021
An atmospheric theatre. Beware the futility of wellness theatre
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Throughout the pandemic, students, staff and instructors alike have received countless emails addressing the collective exhaustion of teaching, learning and working online. Often, these emails contain directives such as “don’t forget to practise self-care”, or “go for a walk” or − my particular favourite − an email sent on a Wednesday that gently advised “don’t check emails on Wednesdays”.

These well-meaning self-care emails are increasingly en vogue during the pandemic as a means of addressing student wellness – and they likely come from a place of concern and empathy. However, when they are merely the last or only step in supporting wellness, we need to call them out for what they are: wellness theatre, akin to the hygiene theatre we have seen during the pandemic, such as when businesses have sanitised floors and declared spaces safe despite the Covid-19 virus being airborne. One of the manifestations of wellness theatre can be “wellness washing”, similar to the “green washing” that happens when companies add photos of green leaves to the packaging of toxic products.

Whatever label we give to performative wellness, we must acknowledge that this performance might be damaging. For instance, the theatrical emphasis on self-care without an accompanying discussion about systemic problems in higher education runs the risk of gaslighting students who face very real barriers, including the stigma of serious mental health struggles.

Similarly, the habit of wellness washing can create a false sense of accomplishment, allowing the institution to check the box next to “do something for students’ mental well-being” without actually devoting significant resources to where they are most needed. We can’t allow wellness theatre to become the modus operandi of higher education’s efforts to support student, staff and instructor well-being.

While practising meditation and being in nature can decrease stress, wellness theatre on its own doesn’t address the structural issues and power dynamics that students navigate as learners. It merely addresses the symptoms that have bubbled to the surface, ignores the underlying sources of mental health challenges and puts responsibility for change solely on the students’ shoulders.

To support student wellness in a meaningful and enduring way, we need to create a culture of wellness across multiple levels of higher education. While instructors do not usually have formal training as mental health professionals, they can adopt a teaching practice built on empathy and compassion. They can design courses based on universal design for learning (UDL) principles. They can create course policies that support student wellness, including flexibility in submission deadlines, a trauma-aware approach to learning, clear and realistic grading expectations, scaffolded and linked activities and assignments, and coordination of tests and assignment due dates across required courses of specific programmes. Instructors are in a position of power with respect to the classroom dynamic, and they can also help to normalise help-seeking behaviour.

However, all the above suggestions take time and labour, and if instructors are to implement positive change, they need to be meaningfully supported by their institutions, departments and administrators. This support can and should take many forms, including offering teaching releases or other workload reductions, fair compensation and real security for precarious instructors, or hiring additional teaching assistants who have training in the pedagogical empathy of the course design. It is much harder for instructors to be empathetic and innovative when they themselves are overwhelmed, overworked and exhausted.

A sustained approach to addressing the systemic issues that Covid has exacerbated is essential to building institutions where students, staff and faculty can thrive. At the institutional level, students need a culture and environment that promotes wellness for all. This will entail a significant shift for some universities, and it cannot be a static response such as a stand-alone website designed to be forward-facing.

Concrete examples include hiring more counsellors so that students can get real-time support, ensuring that the diversity of staff and faculty reflects the diversity of the student body and taking action to address systemic issues of racism, ableism and homophobia. Institutions also need to acknowledge the role that disparity plays in responding to wellness advice such as “do yoga” or “spend time in nature”. Yes, yoga can be the first step in a mental wellness programme, but it is worthwhile only if accompanied by sustained institutional change and support.

Some institutions are making great strides for meaningful action. For example, the University of Alabama at Birmingham developed a mental health app called “B Well”, a comprehensive health and wellness resource finder for students and employees; Vanderbilt University designed its “Student Care Network” to provide expansive and integrated resources directly to students; and the University of Toronto designed the “My Student Support Program” with on-demand student counselling services available to students in 35 languages (or in 146 languages if you book ahead of time).

Student wellness is complex, and a one-size-fits-all programme will not work. When it comes to wellness theatre, we need to look behind the curtain and ask our institutions what actions of consequence they are planning for the second act.

Fiona Rawle is an associate dean, undergraduate, and associate professor, teaching stream, in the department of biology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. She taught an online introductory biology class with nearly 1,000 students this past year.

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