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

  • Cornelius, Nelarine (Principal investigator)
  • Gillon, Anne-Clare (Principal investigator)
  • Umeh, Chidozie (Co-investigator)

Project: Research project (funded)Research

Project Details


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.

Layman's description

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.
Effective start/end date1/07/201/12/22