The Importance of Mental Health in Higher Education – Henley Business School

Business schools are not just teaching skills for on the job. They should also be role models for students and future professionals in relation to how they manage the stresses and balance between their work and their life. This is important for students who are feeling the stresses of the increasing demands being placed on them both in and outside the classroom. In response, business schools are putting a greater focus on the mental health of their students and staff, to ensure that they can get the most out of their time at business school and beyond. This is a focus that Henley Business School in the UK has been putting at their core with a range of programmes. I spoke with Dr Kleio Akrivou, Associate Professor of Business Ethics & Organisational Behaviour about these initiatives.

How/Why did Henley Business School start to take notice?

Henley business school is amongst the oldest business schools in the U.K. and has been placing the well-being of its students at the core of their culture, valuing the student and their flourishing has been a tenet of “the Henley way” in education. In the U.K. and in other countries there is however an increasing number of young adults in the age of Secondary and University level education who report that they need personal support. This ranges from milder challenges for example when a person needs support regarding work-life balance, or stress handling issues to cases of weaker mental health. There has been a lot of publicity on this by the media, and through the government. In our institution, we have seen an increase of reports that some aspect of mental health issue or well-being more broadly needs to be focal while students from the moment students enrol in our programmes (e.g. via data we have from our different sources, academic tutors and even our medical and counselling support experts and via wider student surveys in the U.K. we see this is particularly relevant especially for younger people). Our University also took notice of this trend in the last few years and we all decided to tackle the mental health issue. Building on our existing ethos and foundations we hence develop a wider range of services and support mechanisms, which relate to the broader well-being of students (and staff).

What are you doing now in terms of mental health? 

During the last two years, we have expanded our vision regarding what is involved in enabling the flourishing of our students and their ability to develop and grow personally and professionally as future generators of sustainable value. Our focus has been to tackle aspects of personal support that ensure personal resilience, good health, life and professional habits, and wider well-being, both at University and Business School level. Much of this is coordinated via our newly introduced Student Welfare Team and School-level leadership provided by School Directors of Academic Tutoring. The Student Welfare Team is available every day to help students deal with crisis, friendships, relationship issues, bullying and harassment and a wide range of other issues. The Counselling and Wellbeing service helps students manage a wide range of issues and help to minimise their impact on academic progress. All students can join and it is free of charge.

What are some of the specific services that you offer students?

On the academic side our Academic Tutor system enables students to work together in partnership with our academic staff (each of who has a personal academic responsibility for a number of students per year), in collaboration with professional services staff and many other specialised support staff. We also offer a very student-centric academic and study advice support to enable students to improve their academic skills from where they are, being able to perform without stress in their tasks. This is personalised support for each and all our students and in additions students get personal subject related academic support among other things.

We work a lot on building relations among students in each cohort and across programmes and relations with Faculty and staff, so this strengthens a sense of community. We have fully refurbished our Libraries in the campus to allow for different kinds of learners and quality independent and team study and research. For Careers we have a very dedicated team who offer individual coaching to students which focuses not just on finding jobs but on self sustainability but also work with broader cohorts to ensure (working with programme directors) students engage happily with the challenges linking academic life during their degree and the return to the professional practice. We have further tools, for instance our new “Resilient You’ programme emphasises resilience, helping students to cope with the stress of University and wider life, and to develop adaptive skills to cope in an ever-changing technological world.

We place importance in the mind-spirit-body integration, so in addition we offer a number of natural walks (we have one of the greenest campuses in the UK), as well as meditation and exercise programmes, lectures and workshops and other extra services in a monthly and weekly well-being activities programme offered to students and staff. We also have the “Big White Wall” which is a free online support community accessible 24/7 that is a safe and anonymous online space for students to request and find support.

What about for staff?

Staff have access to many of the programmes listed above. Another programme, “Henley Well-being Hive” was designed to engage staff and enable them to contribute to the development of Henley including through a range of activities including social collaboration, learning and development, stress and wellbeing, diversity and inclusion, culture and leadership. Staff come together in virtual and real meeting to reflect and discuss these topics. We also launched an Employee Assistance Programme called Confidential Care that gives members of staff a place to turn for support any time of day or night on a variety of issues including work stress, depression, marriage and relationship issues, legal concerns, coping with change, parenting issues, financial problems, health issues and much more. It is independent, free and completely confidential, providing a comprehensive range of support and advice services to staff by experienced counsellors. The SportsPark Reading, our in-campus gym also has a hugely reduced subscription for staff to attend individual and group classes and activities for increasing how they take care their mind, body and soul while maintaining good whole person habits as part of their working life.

What have been some of the challenge?

One of the biggest challenges is to make students believe it is not a stigma to share that one needs support relating to well-being or mental health. We always need to win the trust of the students; they have to own the process of engaging with our mental health and well-being support if they feel they need it. Sometimes students are shy and may feel ashamed to share with their academic tutors and the well-being or counselling staff that they need support and they may lose a lot of time before they actively participate in what we offer them. A student who acts already from the first term of their study is more likely to overcome a great deal of their problems, compared to a student who comes out and asks help in the last month of their programme for example.

Sucesses?

We do see many successful cases whereby students literally turn around their situation and become strong in their study and personally via social, peer or academic support or counselling, or study advice, or even medical support. We have seen more successes than you can imagine and this is true with all types and age of students. Sometimes it is that students have not learnt to trust community engagement. These students are often absorbed by technology and social media and our programme allows them to get out of their smartphones and talk to real persons and teaches them we are all a community in the School and the University. All evidence shows that early participation from the side of the students is key to success.

Any advice for other schools looking to do something similar?

Small but connected steps can have great impact. Mental health and the wider well-being are complicated challenges. We think in addition to dedicated services and staff the success lies in mobilizing and engaging a web of staff in their different roles, all of us really working together.

What’s next?

The Business School and the University of Reading has had strong initiatives focused on well-being and mental health for decades now and we will continue to have this focus. For example, in 2019-20 we established a new Experience and Accreditation Committee with a remit to looks at the well-being and experience of our students more broadly. We are also hoping to engage student societies and unions more in these efforts as well.

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