Mental health and wellbeing policies and practices: the lived experiences of academics in UK Business Schools

Mental health and wellbeing policies and practices: the lived experiences of academics in UK Business Schools
 

The primary focus of mental health and wellbeing research and policy development in UK universities has been students: studies of the wellbeing of academics are fewer. In this project the aims are firstly, to review wellbeing policies in British universities, and secondly, to investigate wellbeing experiences and challenges faced by business schools with a view to developing policy guidance for academics, and those who lead and manage them.

This strategic research project is led by Professor Nelarine Cornelius (Queen Mary, University of London and BAM Vice Chair for Research & Publications) and Dr Anne Clare Gillon (University of the West of Scotland and elected member of BAM Council).

The BAM Executive agreed that this was an important and timely project, fitting well with our core values and purpose, and approved funding for work to begin in 2020, reflecting on the context of the Coronavirus pandemic.

UK business schools provide education and training for school leavers and adult learners, leading to degrees and a range of professional qualifications.  Most obtain and maintain membership of professional accreditation bodies, and acquire and maintain national and international accreditations. This range of activities resonates with other schools of applied subjects (e.g. medicine, engineering). However, it could be argued that business schools in particular are subject to additional pressure to increase and maintain high student numbers - their primary source of income - to support university finances more generally. A study conducted by Warwick Business School estimated that UK business schools account for one-third of all international students in the UK and contribute £13 billion to the UK economy. This working environment is likely to create a range opportunities but also distinctive pressures on those managing, and working in business schools. Further, the UK government estimates the cost to the economy of poor mental health alone among those of working age at between £237-273bn per year. Clearly, there are many personal and social costs beyond the economic consequences. As the economic environment becomes more difficult as a result of Covid 19 and Brexit, wellbeing challenges are likely to increase.

In this project we seek to understand better the everyday and critical incident wellbeing challenges facing staff and senior management in business schools, and also identify business schools that are not only wellbeing aware and engaged but which also take proactive policy and practice steps to address the wellbeing of their staff.

Wellbeing is viewed increasingly as an important component of ‘good work’ and work environments. Examples include the CIPD Good Work Index annual reports, Sunday Times Best Places to Work lists and the RSA Future Work Centre projects. The role of the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE), an important watchdog for many wellbeing issues, has diminished. Health and Safety issues in universities are often informed by the guidance of committees and focus mainly on physical hazards and harms such as computer screen quality, access to fire exits and ventilation, despite a raft of health, safety and welfare legislation outlining employer duties for physical and emotional health issues, and in spite of the Stephenson/ Farmer 2017 report, ‘Thriving at Work’. This study - based on an analysis by Deloitte of Labour Force Survey data - divided respondents into three categories: (1) thriving at work, (2) surviving at work, and (3) ill, possibly off work. The report noted that, with the right support, even those with wellbeing challenges could thrive at work, but many employees fell into the ‘surviving’ category.  Worryingly, it also noted the lack of data available from organisations on staff experiencing physical and mental wellbeing challenges, with education (including universities) among these organisations. An important caveat to the findings, from Professor Sir Cary Cooper, is that ‘Employees will respond negatively to wellbeing initiatives if they believe they are merely being implemented to get them to work harder’. 

The focus in universities has been firmly on the wellbeing of students, with less attention paid to staff. A recent small-scale survey by HEPI of 17 UK HEIs highlights a doubling of academics requesting access to counselling services in 2018-2019. This builds on their finding of a five -fold increase in referrals between 2009 and 2015. HEPI point out that increased availability of university counselling services may partially explain the findings. However, they also note increased incidence of poor mental health.

The importance of work quality and environments that prompt good physical and mental health has taken a fresh turn with the Covid 19 pandemic. Remote working, currently the sole mode of working during the pandemic, is to be replaced in many universities by blended learning delivery modes for the academic year 2020-2021. There is, as yet, limited indication of the impact of these work practices on staff well-being. Covid, late-Covid and post-Covid insights are likely to provide a unique opportunity for this BAM-sponsored investigation.

The project is being supported by an expert Steering Group:

  • Professor Nelarine Cornelius, School of Business and Management, QMUL
  • Dr Anne Clare Gillon, University West of Scotland
  • Professor Stefan Krummaker, School of Business and Management, QMUL- invited
  • Dr Julie Prowse, University of Bradford
  • Professor Peter Prowse, Sheffield Hallam University - invited
  • Professor Penny Dick, Sheffield University
  • Dr Wilson Wong, Head of Insights and Futures, Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development

A wider Advisory Group of individuals representing partner and other organisations has also been appointed to guide the project. Institutions represented on these groups include the CIPD, IAM and ANZAM.

The overall project will take 2 years. It is intended to include pre-Covid, Covid and post-Covid data. Updates on progress will be published.

Outputs

The outputs will include a final report, a developmental workshop, a Good Practice guide, and academic, professional and media publications. Findings will be presented to the BAM conference and other partner events.

Methodology

The research will employ a mixed methods design. Specifically, this will include content analysis of university wellbeing web pages and web-based/ email-solicited policy documents; content analysis of round table discussions and focus groups; and use of vignettes, photo-elicitation methods and critical event identification through one-to-one interviews. Thirty academics from across the BAM community (Members, Sub-committees, SIG Chairs and Fellows College) will be identified and interviewed early during the academic year 2021- 2022 (to explore Covid peak and late Covid phase) and again in the autumn of the academic year 2021-2022 (the establishment of ‘new normal’ practice during the anticipated post-Covid phase). Pilot interviews will be undertaken early 2021.

‘Academics only’ round tables will comprise university business school management and staff, from the Advisory Group.  These round tables will help to evaluate and refine the research undertaken at key points in the research programme.  Mixed participant round tables will comprise some members of the Advisory Group, academics, senior professional services staff (e.g. from HRM, Health and Safety) and representatives from professional institutes and learned societies including the Chartered Association of Business Schools (CABS), Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and Business in the Community (BITC). This is to ensure an input of viewpoints from outside the business school and university sector.

Interviews and round tables will take place via Zoom or Microsoft Teams. We will seek Ethics approval for this research project through a University Research Ethics Committee.