V-cs urged to open up on mental health struggles to shift culture

Leadership should be about empathy and compassion, sector leaders say

November 3, 2021
Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of ­England as mentioned in the article
Source: UWE

University leaders need to be more open about their own mental health struggles if they want to encourage a culture of openness around psychological well-being, a conference heard.

Higher education institutions should be places where “everyone feels confident that they can be human” and can have conversations about their mental health, said Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England.

“Vice-chancellors and their senior teams are there to set the culture,” Professor West told a Universities UK conference on the issue. “They have to be brave to make changes when they see things that aren’t working… and it’s leadership that sets the tone.”

The event was held after a major sector survey, conducted for the Education Support charity, found that 71 per cent of university staff who responded feared that speaking out about a mental health issue would harm their career, and 59 per cent felt they would be seen as weak.

Professor West, who is UUK’s president, spoke about sharing his own experience of a low moment amid the pandemic during a question-and-answer session and about how it had prompted a staff member to reach out about their own mental health.

“That human connection is what leadership has to be able to engage with, and sometimes that’s about showing vulnerability,” he said. “That’s the sort of leadership that we need in our institutions.

“We know that for mental health and well-being, it has to be a team sport.”

Nic Beech, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, who also spoke on the panel, said that he had recently had a period of poor mental health and that he felt lucky to be able to be open about it.

“There is still stigma [around mental health],” he said. “It does create a vulnerability, even in people who are vice-chancellors, but how much more so for people who are in different positions.”

Professor Beech added that universities should “think about leadership as including some of the skills of empathy, and compassion”.

“If you look at the kind of traditional ways of thinking about leadership, you don’t spot those things,” he said.

Karen Cox, vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, agreed that senior leaders needed to understand this and to “make themselves available to wider issues…so that they can be alert and more attuned to what’s actually going on across the organisation”.

The vice-chancellors also agreed that universities needed to tackle assessment as part of their efforts to improve student mental health.

Professor Beech said an important change would be to “reframe assessment, as if learning mattered”.

“In other words, that it isn’t just the traditional way of doing assessments and all the stress that exams bring,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be much better if we were to rethink assessment in a way that produced great learning, and if you’re going to do that, you’re actually going to have a system that enables people to be in good mental health at the time that they’re taking them.”

However, people have “to accept that any form of assessment is stressful”, Professor Beech continued. Assessment is a form of performance, and outside university settings, students and graduates will face stress all the time, he explained. “So mental well-being is not about eliminating stress, but it is about managing the way that we approach it, and also constraining and moderating it where appropriate.”


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