Mindfulness is about accessing awareness and learning to respond skilfully in the present moment, and it is exactly what our sector needs.
Right now, we are amid a mental health and wellbeing crisis experienced by students and staff alike; in March 2023, Rosie Tressler, Chief Executive at Student Minds, urged universities and governments to address the mental health crisis among students. Staff experience/people surveys in most UK Universities also reflect the situation.
For instance, the University of St Andrews staff survey 2021 and the University of Loughborough staff survey 2022 both show that only 52 per cent of respondents feel positive about wellbeing at work. The remaining 48 per cent chose negative or neutral in expressing their experience of mental health and wellbeing support. The University of Manchester’s staff survey results – summarised on the university website -noted that
many staff are positive about their working conditions, but a sizeable proportion are not. They report that they are not able to manage their job pressures, their workload or achieve a good balance between work and home.
Conversations in the corridor centre around squeezed organisational resources and the knock-on impact on the student experience. Staff feel stressed and burnt out, resulting in long-term sick leave, reduced work performance, and motivation.
But there is good news too. Some universities have taken action to address these issues and offer mindfulness services to staff and students, from meditation courses at Imperial College London to dedicated mental health weeks focused on anxiety (Queen Mary University of London).
While these are strong steps in embedding mindfulness practices within higher education, there are still barriers preventing prevent strategic implementation and investment.
The first hurdle is scepticism. Often understandable, it can stem from misunderstanding what mindfulness is and is not. The associations with Buddhism and other religious connotations can be off-putting to some, while others believe there is a lack of empirical evidence to support the practice.
Mindfulness has been researched extensively. A quick and dirty Google Scholar search reveals over 17000 resources published on mindfulness at work alone since 2022. Jon Kabatt-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is probably the most cited and known successful intervention to date. In addition, robust evidence exists about how mindfulness has positively changed organisational culture and wellbeing.
Who should be responsible?
Some might say that wellbeing centres, occupational health, or human resource departments would be best equipped to support mindfulness initiatives.
However, in my conversations, staff in these departments often feel they would need more skill and training before they could offer mindfulness services – and others worry about finding the space in their workload to do so.
Some academic departments have taken the matter into their own hands and offer staff and students regular yoga or meditation classes. These are great, but good-will interventions that are not sustainable and can have reduced reach.
Mindfulness must be embedded within the organisational culture and supported and advocated by senior leaders.
When senior leaders buy into mindfulness, they can support long-term strategic goals. Does the referral rate of staff and students to wellbeing services need to be reduced? Does overall performance need to increase? Should staff surveys reflect a higher positive score? Mindfulness initiatives need to be embedded in the structural makeup of institutions, and they can serve strategic goals.
This 5C framework is a starting point to identify areas for embedding mindfulness into an institution.
- Communication and Leadership: identify/ recruit a figurehead that develops, drives and implements mindfulness strategically and operationally across the university, including communications.
- Connectedness: interlink with key themes such as equality, diversity and inclusion, sustainability, education and research and align with KPIs.
- Community: create a community of practice and invite representatives to join strategic working groups to feature mindfulness and offer staff mindfulness coaching, meditation and yoga free of charge.
- Curriculum: identify how mindfulness can be embedded in the curriculum of programmes or as extra-curricular activities that bear recognition (e.g. badges)
- Celebration: use mindfulness incentives to recognise staff contribution and success – such as funding retreats or recognition qualifications.
While you are here, why not experience the power of practising mindfulness – it only takes three minutes:
[Transcript] Find a comfortable seat. A chair is fine. Place your feet flat on the floor and put your hands on your thighs. Take a deep breath in through the nose and lengthen through the spine as you breathe, close your eyes or soften your gaze. Take another deep breath through the nose and exhale, dropping the shoulders. Feel the weight of your body on the chair. Feel your hands resting on your legs. Notice how the body moves as you breathe in and out. Bring your attention to the inhale and the exhale. Notice the length of your inhale and the length of your exhale. Then, breathe in for the count of three, two, one and out for the count of three, two and one. Breathe in for the count of four, three, two, one and out for the count of four, three, two and one. Breathe in for five, four, three, two, one and out for five, four, three, two and one. Now, return to your normal rhythm of breathing. Bring your attention back to your body as you breathe in and out. Sit for a moment, awake and aware.