Could improving wellbeing for academic staff elevate student experience?

The burdens of student support services would appear to position academic staff wellness in opposition to student wellness, but the research suggests they are interdependent.

Higher education staff suffer high rates of burnout, job-related stress and mental health problems related to their work. The pandemic hasn’t caused this, but it has certainly exacerbated it.

The burdens of student support responsibilities during strict lockdowns was indicated as a major contributor to burnout and stress. Teaching staff supporting students throughout the transition to online delivery modes racked up support hours, but, although the work of supporting students is a burden laid upon teaching staff, it is rarely one for which they’re recognised or remunerated. Some reported that students would only receive support and feedback because staff worked without pay.

Research on student services tells us high levels of support enriches student experience and academic performance. This incentivises this pattern of behaviour for both universities as businesses and academic staff who want to see their students succeed.

During lockdowns we heard that the efforts of staff to support university students were causing more work and higher rates of stress and burnout at a time when many staff were themselves particularly vulnerable (owing to the highly casualised higher education sector). The pandemic and associated quarantine measures only increased the existing challenges of work-life merge in the sector.

In this way, the narrative regarding health and wellbeing of academic staff appears to illustrate a tension between the wellbeing of staff and of student support: the more work staff do to contribute to student wellbeing, the more they add to their already overburdened workloads.

However, research from the UK indicates that rather than existing in opposition, high levels of staff wellbeing are positively linked to student wellbeing. Staff wellbeing was strongly impacted by the industry-wide high levels of stress (also a significant aspect of higher education in Australia), and sensitive to institutional decisions.

High levels of staff wellbeing correlates with high performance across other sectors and metrics, too. Although organisational support in this area seems indifferent at the present time, student experience is an area in which universities universally which to remain competitive. A holistic, institutional approach to health, support and wellbeing has potential to return greater dividends for both.

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