Supporting and empowering HE staff through the Student Mental Health crisis

Posted by Lois England

Earlier this year, Tribal published a study like no other in the UK- the State of the Nation Report on the mental health crisis in Higher Education. The report examined more than a decade’s worth of data to provide seven core recommendations, including a section on how institutions can do more to support HE staff to overcome the wide-ranging challenges that universities across the sector are facing. 

Staff can make or break a university’s mission to improve mental health outcomes. However, recent studies reveal that staff believe their roles and responsibilities in relation to mental health ‘lack clarity’ and result in ‘workload and time pressures that are invisible to management’. UCU recently reported that the HE workforce is in crisis with two-thirds of university staff considering leaving the sector due to workload.  

Nurturing staff engagement in a university’s mental health and wellbeing action plan has never been more important. It requires a two-way approach that shares the university’s vision and proactively seeks staff feedback and concerns.  


Staff concerns 

It’s an undisputed fact that university support services are under immense strain from demand that is ever-growing. Worryingly, growth trajectories for student populations and mental health declarations forecast that the worst of the wellbeing crisis is yet to come. Already student-to-counsellor ratios are typically three or four times lower than what is required, according to HEPI records. Sector-wide underfunding in this area has led to support staff being rightly concerned.  

What’s more, responding to student mental health problems is now considered an “inevitable part of the academic role” according to an in-depth study on the subject by Student Minds. This study also revealed that academics believe their roles and responsibilities in relation to mental health: 

  • Are ambiguous and lack clarity, leading to weak and uncertain boundaries and increased risk to students, staff and universities, 
  • Result in workload and time pressures that are invisible to management, 
  • Leave them feeling unprepared and unsupported due to a lack of necessary structures, cultural change and training, and 
  • Have a substantive, negative impact on their own wellbeing. 

Moreover, the report revealed that: “The relationship between academics and Student Services seems, at best, problematic... creating gaps into which students can fall and through which bad practice can arise.” And where students fall through the gaps, and feel unsupported, they are at higher risk of dropping out of university – or worse. 

Key to ensuring students do not ‘slip through the gaps’ between departments is facilitating safe and accurate, up-to-the-minute information shared between teams, via a live, centralised view of each student’s complete record. Therefore, academics are now championing tools that enable more effective collaboration between departments to make data available securely to those who need it - wherever they sit on the wider university staff. 

How can universities support staff through the mental health crisis? 

All members of staff need to be consulted regarding the institution’s wellbeing agenda as ultimately student mental health impacts the entire university community.  

Staff needs are likely to include, but are not limited to: 

  1. Clear communication about the university’s approach, policies and goals for student wellbeing and mental health, 
  2. Appropriate training and support, tailored to each role, and regularly refreshed so that everyone in the education community understands their responsibilities and the steps they need to take to support student wellbeing, 
  3. Adequate time and resources to provide student mental health support – wherever they sit in the organisation, 
  4. Streamlined processes to ensure students can be seamlessly transferred from Student Support and Academic teams and Accommodation teams etc, and into wider service streams, 
  5. Self-service information and support mechanisms that help staff maintain their own mental health,  
  6. Regular promotion of the wellbeing and mental health support services available to all students and university staff, and  
  7. Collaborative approaches with other universities to share experiences and best practices and/or establish cross-sector working groups or support forums for staff. 

Supporting staff with best-of-breed technology solutions is key to bringing about a step-change in the culture at a university.  

Universities that are committed to transforming support services are implementing a whole-university approach to student health and wellbeing. This requires investing in technology, not just to deliver services but to obtain the level of granular data necessary to evaluate the extent to which investment has resulted in an improvement in student wellbeing. This will ultimately provide the necessary insights to identify actions still needing to be taken and built into the institution's plan. Indeed, digital platforms provide more opportunities than ever to engage and connect not just students but the staff and other stakeholders across the university community. 

Technology will play an increasingly vital role in giving institutions the best possible opportunity to manage increased caseloads, streamline the delivery of targeted support, optimise resources, and future-proof operations in the cloud. 

If you are looking to harness streamlined student data management and analysis to empower your staff, making it easier for your institution to provide the right student support services, and make a real difference to outcomes, then get in touch. 


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