Developing a supportive institution

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Stress in Higher education

A systems-psychodynamic approach to supporting the psychological wellbeing of staff and students in higher education.

By Charlotte Williams – Organisational Consultant, Tavistock Consulting

Historically in the Higher Education Sector, the approach to staff and student wellbeing tended to focus on helping those whose mental health had deteriorated. In recent years there was an increase in awareness of, and a decline in the mental health of, the student population and as such, the demand for university counselling rose to an unmanageable degree. As a result, there has been increasing focus on the promotion of individual resilience through the promotion of psychoeducation and self-help resources. Similarly, many universities have historically provided staff counselling for their employees facing mental health difficulties, with a more recent focus on wellbeing catered for through the provision of resilience courses, mindfulness and classes aimed at physical health, for example yoga. In either case, the individual, to varying degrees, has been considered largely responsible for maintaining their own wellbeing with an implication that their ability to cope with the increasing pressures of working or studying at university is being put down to their own individual resilience levels.  Whilst individual levels of resilience play a part in one’s ability to manage stress and the demands of university life, such an approach absolves organisations of responsibility for how it might operate and impact upon the psychological wellbeing of its staff and students.

Thanks to Student Minds, Universities UK and other key organisations, there has been increasing recognition of something more comprehensive and the need for a whole institutional approach to tackle and support the mental health and wellbeing of students and staff within Higher Education. As a result of this, we are beginning to see how considerations around wellbeing can be worked into the structure of courses and assessment, and the student transition into and out of university. As yet, however, we are not seeing an improvement in staff and student wellbeing.

The Tavistock takes a psychodynamic-systems approach to wellbeing and upholds that both the nature of the task, the context within which with the institution finds itself and the structures and systems of the organisation itself impacts significantly upon the wellbeing of its staff.  In a piece of work undertaken by the National Workforce Skills Development Unit last year, the Tavistock developed a new five pillar approach to creating and maintaining the supportive organisation within the NHS and I believe that this is equally relevant to Higher Education.

To read the full article go to the Tavistock Consulting Website

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