It’s good to talk about mental health, that seems to be a well recognised axiom, but does it follow that it’s good to try and measure it?
We all have different thresholds, different triggers, good days and bad days, but in my experience (and I’m not claiming to be any kind of expert) we also need to be ready and willing to talk. Sometimes, we might need a bit of a nudge, but it’s important that we don’t feel railroaded into opening up, particularly if there’s nobody there to pick up the pieces.
Graduate wellbeing questions
Imagine a scenario where a recent graduate is on the phone to someone in a call centre and the call handler is asking them about their experience of employment since leaving university. They’ve been asked a series of questions about their employment and further study activities and then the caller drops in the following: “Just a couple more questions before you go; firstly, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?”
For some, such a question wouldn’t be a problem, it’s just a request for information that’s easily dealt with (honestly or otherwise – “I’m fine thanks”). But for others, asked out of the blue with no warning and no context and no support, it’s a trigger, and potentially a destabilising one at that.
This isn’t a farfetched scenario, it’s the context of the Graduate Outcomes survey. And there isn’t just one question, there are four (drawn from the ONS’s personal wellbeing questions). Here they are:
- On a scale of zero (extremely dissatisfied) to ten (extremely satisfied) how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
- On a scale of zero (not at all worthwhile) to ten (extremely worthwhile), to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?
- On a scale of zero (extremely unhappy) to ten (extremely happy), how happy did you feel yesterday?
- On a scale of zero (not at all anxious) to ten (extremely anxious), how anxious did you feel yesterday?
However well-intentioned these questions might be, they seem to me to be high risk. I therefore wasn’t surprised to hear from a colleague at another institution who has already had a complaint from a graduate about the wellbeing questions. The graduate wrote:
I had not been warned that I was going to be asked about my mental health… I simply thought I was being asked about my current employment. But after questions about whether or not I was working, I was asked, on a scale of 1 to 10, to rate my satisfaction, my happiness, and my anxiety.
I have been quite upset by this phone call, for reasons which I don’t feel bound to disclose, but I do not think it is acceptable to be called out of the blue and asked questions of this nature, without explaining the nature of the questions, asking permission, and stating what they’re for.”
An entirely foreseeable problem
I’ve since looked back at my response to the New DLHE consultation from nearly three years ago. Here’s what I said about the subjective wellbeing questions:
Subjective wellbeing is certainly of interest, but we feel that the DLHE survey is not the right place to gather it; attempting to do so would risk conflating a number of issues. We are concerned that if the survey employs a telephone methodology, those making calls would be put in a difficult position should the graduate they are interviewing express anxiety raised by the question and want to then discuss it. This is something that the caller has neither the time nor the expertise to do, and dealing with such a situation in these circumstances presents considerable risk.”
A more productive approach to increase understanding of satisfaction would be to try to use data pertaining to graduates’ motivation for entering employment or further study. (Regarding the latter, I wrote about that recently: What about graduate job satisfaction?)
Not only is the gathering of wellbeing information risky, there’s the additional important point recorded in the synthesis of consultation responses on subjective wellbeing (SWB) that “much of SWB is either beyond the power of an HE provider to influence or the effect of the HE experience is difficult to disaggregate from other factors”. So why are we asking them?
Don’t let the anecdotes play out
Currently the problems are only anecdotal, but that doesn’t mean we should wait for this to play out. The problem has been exacerbated by the fact that whereas HESA intended the wellbeing questions to be part of the opt-in question bank, the OfS subsequently made the decision to make them mandatory. I’m guessing this is because the OfS want to be able to gather data to measure progress against their strategic objectives, in particular this one:
All students from all backgrounds, are able to progress into employment, further study, and fulfilling lives”.
However, if my gut feeling highlighted during the consultation period is borne out, and the anecdote above suggests it will be, we shouldn’t be gathering this data at all; just because we can ask something doesn’t mean that we should. And when a) we have no control over the context and b) the respondents who highlight concerns aren’t being offered any support by the call handler, it’s an accident waiting to happen.