University staff and students are at high risk of ill health. Here’s how to make sure they can cope


University students are an at-risk population for many health issues. These include mental healthalcohol and substance usesexual assault and harassmentpoor diet and lack of exercise.

Perhaps just as important, but more frequently overlooked, is the well-being of university staff. They exhibit similar risk factors for ill health. Searching for wellness or well-being on most university websites will lead to a dedicated page detailing a wealth of independent strategies and programs focusing on specific areas of health, such as mental health or workplace safety.

But studies have shown different areas of health are closely related. For example, physical activity levels and sporting club involvement have been shown to improve mental health. Universities need to take a more coordinated and comprehensive approach to promoting the health and well-being of their staff and students.

What are the biggest health risk factors?

The cuts to university funding and casualisation of the university workforce have resulted inhigh levels of psychological distress and feelings of job dissatisfaction among many university staff. Staff risk passing this dissatisfaction on to their students.

University staff are also particularly susceptible to preventable risks for ill-health. These include smoking, physical inactivity, poor nutrition, alcohol consumption, high blood cholesterol and high blood pressure. A recent study indicated almost 50% of the university staff surveyed were at high to moderate risk for developing ill-health because they exhibited three or more of these risk factors.

University students and staff are at risk of high levels of stress.

The relatively poor health outcomes of university staff and students are primarily due to the stress and pressures associated with their circumstances. Staff are stressed due to poor job security, unmanageable workloads and low income. Students are stressed as a result of the difficulty in balancing study and other commitments such as placement, work, friends, family, and income.

What works to create healthier universities?

Organisation-level health promotion initiatives, such as job redesign, peer support groups and coaching and career planning have been shown to improve stress management.

The Healthy Universities framework is a good example of a holistic approach universities could use to address the risk factors common among staff and students. Instead of having a bunch of separate programs that focus on specific areas of health, a “healthy university” takes a whole-of-institution approach to creating a supportive environment for everyone who works and studies there.

While the “healthy university” is not a new concept, it gained traction following the 2015 International Conference on Health Promoting Universities and Colleges in Canada. The conference resulted in the development of the Okanagan Charter. Researchers, health professionals, administrators, students and policy makers from 45 countries collaborated to design this framework for health promotion in universities.

Health information and advice for individual behaviour Providing talks, films and seminars on health risks, such as stress, smoking and HIV/AIDS Provide exhibitions, events and information packs on current health topics Space and equipment for preventive health education, such as on-campus clinics and class space Whole-campus policies, such as making the campus a ‘smoke free zone’
Personal counselling for health to support life review and self-empowered change Discussions and role play on peer pressures and social skills in health, such as sex, HIV and drugs Providing access to services such as mental health support, dieticians, health educations and counselling Making space available for self-help groups, such as AA, and group activities Policies to support staff who need to adapt to new rules and codes such as ‘no smoking on campus’
Administrative action for health to reform regulatory systems Recommend students complete assignments and projects to explore and assess the health profile of their university Making sure communication is two-way: communicating change to students and staff and providing opportunities for feedback Making sure students and staff are aware of policies governing the university’s facilities, such as posting policies on the wall of the gym Policies should be a result of a collaborative effort from staff, students and administration
Community development for health to identify common ground and facilitate collective action Opening up health education programs to the local community and providing opportunities for students to volunteer in the local community Facilitate meetings, forums, fairs and street events to open up debate and decision-making on a health agenda across the university Making facilities, such as on-campus gyms, available for use for staff and students as well as locals Policy-making on health should take the community’s views into consideration

In 2016, representatives from 25 Australian universities joined together to form the Australian Health Promoting Universities Network. This represents a major commitment towards the application of the framework within Australia.

What does a healthy university look like?

The health needs of each university are different due to varying needs, resources and the location of each. Globally, there are several examples of the application of the Healthy Universities framework, such as the University of Edinburgh’s integrated Healthy University Project.

There are also numerous examples in Australia.

The University of the Sunshine Coast has implemented the Healthy University Initiative. This includes a range of programs, policies and services to create a healthy working and learning environment. These include gymnasium, sport and fitness facilities, and free mental health training programs.

Charles Sturt University has provided opportunities for physical activity in response to staff and students expressing a need for them. These opportunities include discounted gym memberships, increased access to recreational physical activities, stronger links to local health providers, and continual encouragement for staff and students to use these resources.

How does a healthy university impact staff and students?

Evidence shows a holistic approach to health on campus better supports the health and well-being of staff and students. It also has a positive effect on their sense of belonging as well as recruitment and retention.

This is promising. The stress-inducing culture of university and the associated negative health outcomes have been identified as common reasons for student dropout and staffdisengagement in work.

While some areas may be beyond the direct control of a university, a holistic approach, like the Healthy Universities framework, should be adopted. This type of coordinated support helps students and staff cope with stressors by establishing appropriate support networksbetween students, their peers, other mentors and academics and integrating a more creative and needs-based approach for staff satisfaction.

Author Bios: Brad Wright is a Sessional Academic (Health & Physical Education) and Matthew Winslade is a Sub-Dean Workplace Learning, Senior Lecturer Health and Physical Education both at Charles Sturt University