By iomh, on 10 October 2023
From making discoveries that change the world, to supporting students as they navigate university life, academic roles can be rewarding, but also emotionally draining. UCL’s Head of Workplace Wellbeing, Sally Belcher outlines how dedicated workplace health teams and researchers have come together to support the mental health of members of staff.
World Mental Health Day is recognised annually on 10 October. It is a day that encourages everyone to reflect on their own mental health, and that of those around them. This year’s theme of ‘Mental health is a universal human right’ means ensuring mental health is treated equitably and with the same respect and dignity as that of a physical injury. Working in Workplace Health, especially around the time of World Mental Health Day is an opportunity to improve knowledge and raise awareness of staff but it also serves as a stark reminder on how far we as a society have to go.
The ‘Supporting Staff Wellbeing in Higher Education’ (2021) paper, reported that, ‘the overall level of emotional exhaustion was high. More than six respondents out of ten (65.3%) reported feeling emotionally drained from their work at least ‘once a week. with academic staff also perceiving ‘a poorer psychosocial safety climate in their institution and a higher degree of stigmatisation surrounding mental health issues.’
These findings highlight that staff within higher education are suffering while at work. However mental health of staff in higher education is multi-faceted. Staff in student facing roles often feel ill equipped to support students with their own mental health and lack the boundaries needed to protect their own wellbeing.
Professor Jo Billings, Division of Psychiatry, UCL remarks: ‘Working in academia can be incredibly rewarding, but is not without significant stressors, including high workloads, competitive fundings processes and job insecurity (Nicholls et al., 2022). The recently established Mental Health at Work SIG was formed to bring together researchers on workplace mental health and those with an interest in the mental health and wellbeing of researchers in academia.
At the inaugural conference in May 2023, the SIG explored some of the most recent research on the mental health of staff in higher education, including how the topics of our own research in mental health can often be sensitive, challenging and difficult. The Mental Health at Work SIG will reconvene again in 2024 and hopes to increase awareness of mental health at work in academia and promote more research on the impact of our work on ourselves.
The work of this Mental Health at Work Special Interest Group led by UCL’s Professor Jo Billings and Dr Danielle Lamb provides an ideal forum for colleagues to discuss policy, practice and research
A significant step forward in the mental health of the entire Higher Education sector is the University Mental Health Charter, led by Student Minds. This provides the framework designed by thousands of staff and students that serves to shape a future in which mental health and wellbeing are a fundamental aspect embedded into culture within universities.
UCL was one of the first five institutions to be awarded the Charter. The recommendations provide valuable insights for UCL’s leaders to continue to embed a whole university approach to align with UCL’s strategic plans.
Prof Anna Cox and Prof Jo Billings have recently been appointed co-chairs of the Staff Mental Health and Wellbeing Expert Working Group. This group will have multi-disciplinary expertise tasked with responding to the recommendations from the University Mental Health Charter Oversight Committee. They will inform UCL Workplace Health’s strategic and holistic approach to staff mental health and wellbeing procedures, policies and practices.
As in all workplaces, there is still a significant amount of progress to be made in the area of staff mental health but with a growing community of peer support, more than 180 Wellbeing Champions and 400 Mental Health First Aiders, an ambitious Research Culture roadmap that prioritises the mental health and wellbeing of researchers at UCL, the academic expertise and funded mental health training programmes agreed for all staff groups, the commitment is very much there
Sally Belcher is Head of Workplace Wellbeing, University College London
The Mental Health at Work Special Interest Group is hosted by the UCL Institute of Mental Health and intended to bring together a network of researchers and academics from across UCL who are interested in mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.