People wellbeing - Key considerations for higher education providers

29 January 2024

Prioritising people wellbeing

People wellbeing has been an area of increasing focus in recent years. The pandemic placed wellbeing on the agenda, where it continues to be an area of focus for higher education providers in light of rising cost-of-living related pressures and wider regulatory focus. 

Data from the Office for Students (OfS) shows that the number of full-time students that have reported a mental health condition increased from 0.7% in 2010/11 to 4.5% in 2021/22. The Office for National Statistics’ survey on the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on university students found that 46% of students reported that their mental health and wellbeing had worsened since the start of the autumn term in 2022.

Factors such as academic pressure, social isolation and the transition to university life, can contribute to mental health challenges. Higher education providers have a duty of care to their students, and we have seen the OfS allocate targeted funding, and support initiatives such as Student Space. 

Support tools, such as the University Mental Health Charter, are available for universities to improve wellbeing. Universities have been urged to do more and, in some matters, we have seen increased regulatory focus. For example, the OfS issued a Statement of Expectations in 2021 and earlier this year, proposed a new condition of registration to tackle harassment and sexual misconduct.

Whilst there may be scope to improve services, providers have taken key steps to promote mental health awareness and related initiatives. Universities can offer counselling services, provide training for faculty and support staff to recognise signs of distress, and create a supportive campus environment. Establishing peer support networks, promoting self-care practices and reducing stigma around mental health can help mitigate the risks.

Managing the risks and enabling improvement

In recent years, within the strategic risk registers of higher education providers, we have seen an increasing focus on providing support for mental health issues for staff and students, and ensuring effective safeguarding systems are in place to provide a safe learning environment. During 2021/22 to 2022/23 we had undertaken around 50 internal audit wellbeing related reviews across our not-for-profit clients. Below we summarise some of the key themes and outcomes from our reviews, allowing providers the opportunity to incorporate key practices where there is scope for improvement. 

Policies, procedures and reporting 

  • A mental health and wellbeing framework should be in place, with a dedicated committee with responsibility for leading and developing the strategy. There should be clear oversight of progress against planned initiatives and their impacts traced. A wellbeing related policy should be approved, be updated timely, and outline the key responsibilities, timescales and procedures to be followed.
  • Timely and relevant information should routinely be reported to the committee and to the Board of Governors, to keep them informed of the approach and activities regarding mental health and wellbeing.
  • We have seen providers hold weekly meetings to discuss students presented as being at risk in relation to either safeguarding or mental health. Students at risk are included on a tracker to ensure their case is discussed in detail and that all students are captured and reviewed as part of the process.
  • Data and trend analysis should feature in your reporting. This should include KPIs, such as attendance, retention / continuation, satisfaction and feedback, and any metric data generated from access to support services, apps, programmes and online information. 
  • University groups spread across locations should effectively share their knowledge, insights or known concerns in relation to issues raised on campus or in relation to students and / or staff. 
  • To identify lessons learned from wellbeing events, discussing how specific cases were managed can help to bring about improvement. 
  • Staff and students should feel supported, and able to raise any health or wellbeing concerns or incidents. Reporting channels should be clear and effective. It’s important to seek assurance over reporting processes to ensure people are being supported as best as they can be.

Support services, initiatives, awareness campaigns and signposting 

  • Wellbeing champions are in place, that have a clearly defined role, are engaged, visible, promote wellbeing activities, and encourage healthy lifestyles and positive mental health.
  • There should be a clearly defined strategy for raising awareness of wellbeing initiatives, support and communication routes. Signposting of wellbeing tools and resources is imperative. Whilst there may be support services in place, for them to be effective and of use, people must know they are available and how they can be accessed. 
  • A wellbeing related communications plan should detail campaigns, the channels of communication, and measurement, for example gathering data on what services / resources have been accessed more than others, which can be used for forward planning and in informing future initiatives. 
  • There are a host of communication routes available from newsletters, posters, intranet and website articles and social media updates, all of which are designed to maximise visibility of support resources. Wellbeing initiatives can be wide ranging including information on financial support, stress management, mental and physical health etc and there are 24-hour student assistance programmes available.
  • Information should be up-to-date and consistent across the various faculty’s, with key links to local community, voluntary and statutory agencies to support any cross referrals. Where referrals are made this data should be captured for reporting purposes.
  • Seek feedback on services and on the wellbeing needs of students and staff through an annual survey. The findings should feed through into updated action plans. It’s also a way of demonstrating that the views of your people matter, and they are being listened to.

Training and guidance 

  • Management should have a complete view of all mental health and wellbeing training available across each faculty and keep up-to-date records of training completions. 
  • There are mandatory training requirements in place for all staff and specialised training relating to mental health and wellbeing for those in certain support roles. Care should be taken to ensure updates to training courses are actioned and that staff do complete updated courses timely when in post. 
  • We have seen examples of wellbeing training and workshops provided by organisations specialising in mental health and wellbeing. This has included a series of online training sessions for line managers, team leaders and tutors.
  • Line managers should have a good awareness of the health and wellbeing support strategies and services available. Most line managers do not have to provide wellbeing solutions, but they should be well equipped to listen and to sign-post as appropriate.
  • To trace how effective training has been, staff can be requested to complete a pre and post course survey where they are asked to rate their confidence and knowledge in dealing with people experiencing mental health difficulties.

Concluding comments 

Supporting your staff and students through wellbeing is key to maintaining engagement, staff retention, student continuation, motivation and attainment. Whilst we have seen many providers taking steps to enhance their wellbeing and related support services there is scope for further improvements. 

Some key considerations 

  • Are students and staff satisfied with the pace of delivery of mental health and wellbeing initiatives? 
  • Do you know how staff and students really view the support services provided?
  • Have you identified the improvements your institution needs to take in its approach to mental health and wellbeing?
  • Are you confident that students know how and where to report a concern or incident?
  • Is your institution receiving more requests for mental health and wellbeing support?
Lisa  Randall
Partner, Head of Higher Education
Emma Griffiths
Emma Griffiths
Associate Director, Risk assurance
Lisa  Randall
Partner, Head of Higher Education
Emma Griffiths
Emma Griffiths
Associate Director, Risk assurance