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The importance of weaving wellbeing into university life

The mental wellbeing of students and staff has come into sharp focus of late. What can be done to better support them both now and in the future?

A 2020 Office for National Statistics survey1 exposed the devastating impact of COVID-19 on students’ mental health in England. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of higher education students surveyed felt COVID-19 posed either a big or significant risk to their mental or physical health. 

Staff are struggling too, upskilling, and delivering online learning, many, while also juggling childcare and other responsibilities.

Mental health is as important as physical

“It's abundantly clear that we need to look at mental health differently, starting with a change in mindset,”

says Nick Bennett, co-founder, and co-CEO of the mental fitness platform, Fika.

Nick explains:

“Mental fitness is a concept that needs as much, if not more attention than physical fitness. As a sector, we need to close the mental education gap, and provide tech-based tools and training frameworks to enable students and staff to manage their mental fitness, just like they would their physical fitness.

I speak from experience. I co-founded Fika after losing my best friend to suicide in 2014, and my Fika journey has taught me we don’t just need mental health services, we also need mental fitness services. 

We're a Jisc-supported startup, providing universities with an easy to implement mental fitness framework and endorsed mental skills development courses accessed through an easy-to-use app.” 

Fika is already used in more than 40 UK universities. It helps students and staff to build and maintain seven skills of mental fitness; confidence, positivity, focus, connection, meaning, motivation, and stress management. 

“These mental fitness skills can be developed and improved, and are key to supporting performance and career success. Our courses can be taken again as refreshers, and students and staff receive official accreditation for completing them."

The startup is growing, Nick says.

“In 2021, we’re expanding our efforts to support further education and the workplace. People are struggling at the moment, and we want to support as many as we can with our technology.” 

Weaving wellbeing into all aspects of university life

Fika has recently endorsed a new Jisc and Emerge Education report about student and staff wellbeing, which looks at the HE sector and finds that achieving a mentally-healthy university means moving from a reactive crisis management model, to one that uses technology to embed preventative wellbeing initiatives across whole institutions and curriculums.  

The report contains four key recommendations for universities, a wellbeing technology checklist, and inspiration from several universities about how technology has helped to create successful digital wellbeing support for staff and students.

John de Pury, Universities UK assistant director, comments in the foreword:

“Technology is a key enabler of the whole university approach to mental health, providing new opportunities to identify those in difficulty, to connect, to influence behaviours, and to deliver support.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, university staff have been working at pace to transform support services, by moving counselling and advice online, building digital communities, and developing new services to meet new needs. 

Throughout, they have worked in close partnership with digital providers, who have brought commitment and expertise to the shared objective that UK universities emerge from the pandemic as healthy settings, enabling all students and all staff to thrive and succeed to the best of their potential.”

How technology is already being used 

The new Jisc/Emerge report shares diverse examples of technology already being used to enhance wellbeing offers. 

MiddlesexUniversity College of Estate Management (UCEM)ExeterManchester, and Nottingham Trent universities are using apps, tools, and platforms to build mental fitness and provide information, resources, and conversation spaces for students. Many provide therapy and intervention where needed, and some support other areas where wellbeing is a concern, such as finance and personal safety.

The pandemic inspired UCEM to embed its mental health awareness approach for all staff. To help staff retain a sense of community, the university placed a strong focus on communication, making sure there were extra opportunities to check in with weekly all-staff meetings, weekly video updates from the principal, and fortnightly line manager meetings via Zoom to see everyone’s faces.

Jane Fawkes, deputy principal at UCEM, shares:

“We’ve seen a cultural shift in thinking about wellbeing since COVID that we will carry on in terms of how we think about our staff and our students.” 

The report underlines the need for universities to weave wellbeing into everyday academic life, treating it as a collective endeavour, something that matters to everyone, and a lifelong project. 

“I’d want wellbeing to be connected so intimately with other learning and teaching that people don't see it as wrap-around or built on,”

says Emily McIntosh, director of learning, teaching and student experience, Middlesex University.

Lifelong skills for education and beyond

There is no ignoring the statistics; coronavirus restrictions have been tough on us all. Student and staff wellbeing in higher education reinforces the need for a formalised support structure. 

Nick believes:

“Students and staff need a national structure in place that recognises the value of mental wellness skills, placing them firmly on the curriculum.”

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