With an ‘epidemic’ of poor mental health, what can universities do to help?

Practical guidance for universities on how they can support the growing number of staff experiencing challenges relating to mental health and well-being

Meredith Wilkinson's avatar
De Montfort University
6 Jan 2023
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There is an epidemic of poor mental health among higher education professionals in the UK. Around 20 per cent of university staff meet the threshold for probable depression or anxiety, according to a 2021 study. Since mental health and well-being are worsening, it is critical that universities take a proactive approach to support their staff. This article makes four suggestions on how universities can do this. 

1. Invest in a good employee assistance programme

Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) are benefits programmes designed to support the staff within an organisation – such as a university – with personal and professional challenges through advice and useful resources. Often delivered by third-party providers, EAPs offer a range of services including low-intensity psychological therapy for several fixed sessions, advice on financial and legal matters and a portal where employees can access useful resources.

EAPs have played an increasing role over the past couple of years, with the director of EAP provider Health Assured stating that “high risk” calls from individuals in crisis are becoming a daily occurrence. The fact EAPs receive daily crisis calls indicates the need for these services. Universities need to ensure they invest in a suitable EAP to support their staff. 

Dozens of EAPs are available through companies including Bupa, AXA, CiC, Validium and PAM Assist. When selecting an EAP, institutions should consider what kind of mental health support it can offer to staff, what sort of referral times staff might face when seeking support and what other services the EAP provides, such as mental health first aid. Universities should look for EAPs that provide 24/7 helplines for staff to call when in need.

2. Provide a safe space for staff to disclose disabilities, chronic conditions and mental illness

Universities need to be proactive about supporting the diversity of staff they have. It is difficult to state exactly how many staff within the university sector have a disability, mainly due to non-disclosure. Line managers should be provided with training on supporting staff with disabilities, chronic conditions and mental illness to help them understand what reasonable adjustments are needed for these staff. 

De Montfort University recently rebranded their Disabled Staff Network the DisAbility and Wellbeing Network (Dawn) emphasising the importance of well-being. Dawn provides a safe space for staff who have a disability, and allies, to meet and discuss matters related to working at the university and to attend mindfulness sessions. It creates opportunities for these staff to meet senior leaders.  It is important for vice-chancellors and senior figures within institutions to meet disabled and other staff networks to help inform inclusion and access policies. 

Other universities could benefit from this strategy of rebranding disabled staff networks to incorporate well-being-related sessions and discussions, which staff who do not identify as having a disability may feel more comfortable joining. Staff networks have a crucial role to play in supporting individuals and can be an important avenue of communication between staff on the ground and senior management.

3. Provide adequate training and support through mentoring

Good mentoring can be instrumental in empowering staff to do the best job they can. Mentoring can take many forms, whether provided through schemes set up within a university or one of the many external schemes now available, such as Aurora, which focuses on supporting women to gain leadership positions.

Mentoring needs to be organised so the mentee and mentor can relate to one another, whether that be by gender, background or chosen career path. For example, encourage senior staff in your institution who identify as having a disability, and feel comfortable doing so, to become mentors so that disabled staff can see themselves represented in different areas of the university and feel able to seek support when needed. Mid-career staff should be able to access mentoring and act as mentors themselves to enable staff members of all levels to access mentoring. Senior management can benefit from reverse mentoring in which they partner with more junior staff members to gain insight into the issues these individuals and their colleagues face.

In addition to mentoring, staff need adequate training in certain areas, for instance, how best to support students with personal challenges. Student mental health problems have increased in recent years, so university staff need to know how to provide appropriate support or signpost relevant services. A good start would be to ensure that all staff receive Mental Health First Aid training. 

4. Provide well-being resources for staff

Universities often provide a wealth of well-being resources for students but they tend to provide fewer for staff. It is hard to define what a well-being resource should be, since different people will benefit from different things. Helping staff focus on achieving a good work-life balance is important. Giving staff the time to focus on their own self-care and professional development alongside their day-to-day work is likely to improve their overall satisfaction and performance. University management need to use tools such as anonymous surveys to gather more feedback from staff about what really makes a difference to their well-being at work and what policies or support mechanisms could have the biggest impact.

Meredith Wilkinson is senior lecturer in psychology at De Montfort University.

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The UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association’s EAP buyers guide


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