Helping students means taking university staff wellbeing seriously

Drawing on the findings of a pan-European study on mental health in universities, Kate Lister and Elena Riva call for more robust policy and practice frameworks to enable wellbeing support for university staff

Kate Lister is Associate Dean of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at Arden University

Elena Riva is Head of Department,  and Associate Professor (Reader) at the Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning in the University of Warwick 

In recent years, the higher education sector in Europe (and internationally) has become increasingly aware of – and concerned about – the declining mental health and wellbeing of students.

And rightly so. The number of students declaring a pre-existing mental illness to their university has more than doubled since 2014, with there also being an increase in demand for services to support student mental health. In fact, some reports suggest certain universities are seeing a doubling in the number of students accessing support.

This growing concern has provoked action from different bodies. Those in the UK will already be aware of Student Mind’s Mental Health Charter and the UUK StepChange framework, and other sector bodies internationally are increasingly highlighting the importance of a coordinated approach to student wellbeing.

But there is a bigger issue at hand. Our recent report exploring student and staff mental health across European higher education institutions suggests staff and student wellbeing are not separate issues and actually need to be considered as mutually dependent parts of the same ecosystem. So, this means we need to help our staff first, in order to help our students.

The issues that remain

Despite a decade of intense sector focus on student mental health, there remains a long list of barriers to wellbeing.

Some of the barriers are long standing ones, such as university culture and common practices prioritising individualism, competition and over-work, rather than collaboration, community and wellbeing. Some barriers are deeply ingrained into higher education systems – including inequalities, discrimination and marginalisation, which impact high numbers of staff and students. Other barriers relate to the impact of wider global challenges and crises, and the lack of support available to manage these. When these experiences and barriers intersect, and are combined with stressful, unsupportive work or study environments, they can result in truly devastating consequences.

Throughout our research, however, we found there is another barrier at play that is often unrecognised: there is little acknowledgement of the interlinked relationship between staff and student wellbeing within higher education. Instead, institutional interventions and approaches appear to prioritise student wellbeing, with staff wellbeing initiatives appearing disjointed, inconsistent, or less valued in comparison to those relating to students. Student wellbeing initiatives that place heavy demands on staff can even be directly detrimental to staff wellbeing, yet this is widely overlooked or disregarded in the sector.

This brings us to the perennial issue of workloads. Both for academic and professional staff, workloads are widely recognised as being demanding, unrealistic, unrepresentative of the actual work required, and significantly detrimental to wellbeing of staff and students. Staff work long hours and can struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance, leading to stress, health issues and burnout. As a result, they may not be able to fully engage with and support students, which is essential for their success. We know the saying: “one cannot pour from an empty cup”. The same applies here.

Institutional policies, such as competitive outcomes-based performance metrics and precarious academic contracts, can also have detrimental effects on the university community’s wellbeing. These policies often don’t acknowledge the pastoral support staff provide to students and other staff, which can significantly increase the emotional and practical demands on staff and impact the level of support available to students.

Different policy, same problem

We can look at different universities across the globe to understand and compare how they are managing and supporting staff and student wellbeing. As such, our report highlighted differences in international policy and strategy approaches towards student and staff mental wellbeing in different areas of Europe.

In Ireland, for example, there has been a strong move towards holistic mental wellbeing policies to support university students, including a coordinated nationwide effort to align policy activity. This is not dissimilar to the UK and Australia, where universities are also developing individual policies on student wellbeing, and sector bodies call for and support whole-university approaches to student wellbeing.

In other European countries the picture was less clear; there was a notable lack of student mental health policies and strategies in universities across the continental EU Member States, and legislation to support staff wellbeing vary across countries. For example, Belgium and Denmark have legal and policy frameworks in place that specifically focus on staff wellbeing at work, whereas other countries only mention stress factors (such as discrimination or the regulation of working hours) within wider policy or legal documents. Notably, the ways in which universities around the world manage risk also varies; universities in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, for example, exhibit more overt regulatory pressure from the government than those in Europe or the USA.

There remains a clear need for universities to commit to their staff mental health through wellbeing policies and strategies across different jurisdictions. Literature on university staff wellbeing suggests that academics are busier and working faster than ever, and there is evidence of an undermining of academic professionalism, academic freedom and increased job insecurity in the sector. Academics, therefore, may struggle to position themselves outside of the performance culture and still be viewed as a valued team member.

There are clear opportunities for countries to develop more coordinated mental health policies that positively impact staff, as there are still disparities in this area. These might include elements such as inclusive promotion and recognition processes, flexibility in working arrangements, transparency in institutional change, psychological safety at work. There should also be a culture in which staff and student wellbeing is genuinely valued by leadership instead of being entirely outsourced to Employee Assistance Programmes. Moving forward, a proactive approach, one which pushes systemic changes and promotes a culture of wellbeing and community, is a key part of the solution in higher education across the globe.

A coordinated solution

There is both opportunity and potential to move away from this current state of play. To achieve this, we should start by identifying how structural and cultural challenges affect both students and staff, as opposed to seeing them as two separate entities, and implementing solutions and approaches that benefit both staff and student communities.

Our report found there is a clear need for a holistic, whole-institution approach to wellbeing – an aspect which has long been identified as desirable, but which remains elusive in practice. For this to be realised, university leaders need to take ownership of, and accountability for, ensuring mental wellbeing is considered throughout higher education cultures, systems, and practices. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution; each university must tailor its initiatives to its own unique context and needs. For example, research looking at different approaches taken by universities has illustrated the transformative power of group action at a local level. In other words, collective resistance to the influence of performative culture, can help generate community resilience to poor wellbeing.

A crucial aspect of a truly whole-institution approach is the requirement for policy and strategy relating to wellbeing, both at institution level and more broadly – such as in Ireland, where there is a country-wide policy and strategy around mental health. Definitive strategies also need to exist at the level of individual institutions to raise awareness that staff and student mental wellbeing are connected and, therefore, commit to inclusive practices and policies across the board. Such strategies need to support a shift in the cultural mindset in higher education towards respecting the whole person, the whole life and the value of individual wellbeing.

For wellbeing to improve, universities also need to look at: institutional culture; designing inclusive student support services and practices; embedding wellbeing in curriculum, pedagogy and practice; staff recruitment, promotion and staffing practices; inclusive working practices for staff; and practices that eliminate bias and discrimination.

We are moving towards a future in which higher education needs to be increasingly relevant to and active in society, playing a substantial role in shaping sustainable, inclusive and resilient societies, economies and leaders. Universities must find ways to counter the toxic and competitive cultures of the past and move towards a strategic vision that supports a culture of compassion, belonging and equality for staff and students.

This blog is based on the findings from “Student and staff mental well-being in European higher education institutions“, Riva et al (2024), led by Elena Riva, University of Warwick.

5 responses to “Helping students means taking university staff wellbeing seriously

  1. As a mental health science Professor, I suggest a group: “Academic Minds” to develop a MH & WB Charter for academic staff. Good report, Katie, well done!

  2. As a charity which supports mental health practitioners who support student mental health we’d absolutely agree with everything Kate says. Services for staff are nowhere near as well developed or given as much focus as those for students, with our members feeling they have little control over their caseloads or ability to take time out from their days to look after their own mental health and wellbeing, or even engage in vital supervision and CPD.

    Ironically, on Uni Mental Health Day, an awareness raising day which we started 16 years ago, most of our members will be unable to engage with activities being put on by their employers, due to their own workloads.

    Our recent member survey ( showed that members feel that the work they do to support students with their mental health is frequently unacknowledged and unappreciated by university leaders and desperately under-resourced. In terms of their working conditions, low pay coupled with increasing caseloads and responsibilities means some members are considering leaving their current role in the near future.

    Our own UMHD blog posts also highlights the need for staff wellbeing to be prioritised.

  3. absolutely agree with all of the above – the scale and nature of the issues seen in the student population is far greater than the resource given to it meaning that academic staff are having to pick up work that is far better suited to those trained and focussed on it and ultimately students lose out. University resources are being pared back due to funding problems which originate from a lack of government prioritising and investing in those who will be the future of the nation. i don’t totally blame the university high-ups – but those in government and those that vote for those who promise that individuals rather than the nation gaining. Hence why i am about to retire as the moral injury is slowly wrecking my own MH

  4. A great report Elena and Kate, totally agree with calls for a whole-university approach that prioritises both staff and student wellbeing and promotes a sense of belonging by all. HEI staff are reflective of the wider society they support, are so often HEI learners themselves and subject to the many of the same challenges faced by all learners.

  5. Why do you always assume that only ‘academics’ can have mental health issues because of ‘marginalisation and work-pressures’? A look at the increasingly poor pay and marginalisation of admin and other support staff is long overdue.

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