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Staff wellbeing in higher education

Written By: Richard Faulkner
3 min read
Original research by:

O’Brien T and Guiney D (2018) Staff wellbeing in higher education. London: Education Support Partnership.


This study, conducted for the Education Support Partnership (ESP), examines staff wellbeing in higher education. The researchers interviewed staff members from  across 25 higher education institutions, with a view to identifying key emergent themes for further research, discussion and dissemination.

 What is the research underpinning it?

How did the researcher(s) conduct the research?

The researchers held 25 in-depth semi-structured interviews covering 25 higher education institutions. ESP provided access to the participants by giving the researchers lists of email addresses of staff members working in higher education that were randomly selected from their database. The researchers then approached potential participants by email and asked if they would like to take part in a phone interview. Four waves of random sampling were needed to achieve the total number of interviews, giving a theoretically robust sample size in relation to Grounded Theory, the methodology chosen to analyse the data obtained from the interviews (Birks and Mills, 2015).

Each participant was asked the following questions:

  1. What do you understand by the term wellbeing?
  2. What has a positive impact on your wellbeing in your workplace?
  3. What has a negative impact on your wellbeing in your workplace?
  4. How could wellbeing be improved in your workplace?
  5. Do you see any links between wellbeing and mental health?

What were the key findings from the study?

The researchers summarise the key findings as follows:

  1. Professionals in higher education actively consider their own wellbeing and that of their students.
  2. Respondents do not feel they have expertise in the area of wellbeing or mental health but recognise wellbeing is complex and is a dynamic process with many interrelated domains.
  3. Wellbeing is maximised when people feel valued, well-managed, have good workplace collegiality and can act with agency and autonomy.
  4. In terms of negative impacts on their wellbeing, the largest expression of concern was management approaches that prioritised accountability measures and executive tasks over teaching, learning and research tasks. This was seen as disassociating what participants want to focus on – and what they came into the profession for ­– from what administrators want to focus on.
  5. Participants overwhelmingly identified the consumer model as a driver of management priorities and one that had severely undermined trust.
  6. The drive for student numbers and the competition between universities – for example, Russell Group versus non-Russell Group – was seen as a generator of pressure, including potentially souring staff/student relationships. This pressure negatively impacts on wellbeing.
  7. Bereavement and support associated with bereavement was mentioned by half of the respondents when discussing wellbeing.
  8. Several respondents said they would actively choose not to use in-house processes and procedures to deal with their own wellbeing/mental health issues at a time when trust had been eroded. They felt it could result in labelling which could be detrimental to them.
  9. In general, respondents did not feel empowered to make a difference to the way that higher education institutions deal with wellbeing issues and this generated some cynicism.
  10. All respondents saw a clear, though hard to define, link between wellbeing and mental health.

Were there any limitations to the study?

The sample of interview participants was drawn from the ESP’s database. Since the ESP is the UK’s mental health and wellbeing charity for the education workforce, it is likely that subscribers are already interested in, or concerned about, staff wellbeing, so the results are not necessarily representative of higher education institutions more generally. Furthermore, the perspective of managers and administrators were not represented in the randomised sampling process. As the researchers acknowledge, however, the aim of the study was to produce ‘rich descriptions’ (Creswell, 2002) that represent the complexity of the institutions under study. As such, in the place of generalisability, readers should approach this research with consideration of relevance to their context and transferability.

Impact on practice

The research has implications for staff working in higher education, although, as noted above, this will be context specific. Further research is required in order to understand what wellbeing activities and interventions exist in higher education and what would be most helpful to staff. Another possible area for future research is the nature of, and current barriers to, collegiality in higher education compared with other sectors in education. More research is needed to understand the ethics and processes that exist within occupational health or counselling services at universities and how they can be communicated to staff to increase trust and confidence. The researchers recommend that ESP ensure that higher education institutions are aware of their support helpline.


Want to know more?

Birks M and Mills J (2015) Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide. London: SAGE

Creswell, JW (2002) Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches. London: SAGE.

O’Brien T and Guiney D (2018) Staff wellbeing in higher education. London: Education Support Partnership. Available at: (accessed 15 September 2019).

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