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Trevor Hancock: Making our universities and colleges healthy

In my previous column, I noted that studies show students today are under a lot of pressure, with high rates of symptoms of mental-health issues. They are not alone.

In my previous column, I noted that studies show students today are under a lot of pressure, with high rates of symptoms of mental-health issues. They are not alone.

A 2013 book on faculty stress notes that “contrary to popular opinion, college and university faculty often experience a greater amount of stress than professionals in many other occupations.”

A national survey of 56 Canadian universities published in 2010 found that while overall faculty “were satisfied with their jobs and emotionally committed to their institutions,” they also showed high levels of strain. Overall, “13 per cent of the respondents reported high psychological distress and 22 per cent reported elevated physical health symptoms.”

A parallel study looked at members of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of B.C. working in colleges. This study found that “FPSE members, like academic staff working in Canadian universities, those in Australia and in the U.K., are stressed to a high degree.”

Overall, the picture that emerges is that universities and colleges appear to be having a significant impact on the mental well-being of their students and staff. This was an important focus of concern at the recent International Conference on Health-Promoting Universities held at UBC’s Okanagan campus in Kelowna.

Key questions are: To what extent is this stress necessary? Is it interfering with the learning and teaching role of our universities and colleges? What can be done to reduce it?

In thinking about how to change the university or college setting to make it more healthy, it helps to consider four aspects of that setting: the natural, built, social and organizational environments. Of these, the first two are relatively straightforward, if far from widely adopted.

One issue of concern is access to nature, which is emerging as an increasingly important factor in our highly urbanized, indoor lives. But while many campuses have lovely outdoor environments, too often lecture theatres and classrooms do not have access to natural light or views of nature, even though such access has been found to improve student performance in schools and presumably can be expected to do so on campuses.

Another aspect of nature-contact that a number of campuses — including the University of Victoria — have introduced in recent years is to bring in therapy dogs at exam time. It seems to help students de-stress, and experience shows these doggy moments are very popular.

Turning to the built environment of the campus, while much has been done to create sustainable buildings, the healthfulness of those buildings has received much less attention.

But a 2014 report from Simon Fraser University provides some useful pointers, noting that “key features of physical spaces that impact student learning and well-being have been identified as light, temperature, air quality, furniture, nature, colour, art, as well as inclusivity.”

It is when we come to the social and organizational environment that we find the biggest challenges.

One of the keynote speakers at the Kelowna conference was Richard Keeling, a physician and former senior student-affairs administrator at two major American universities. In a powerful presentation, he argued for an “ethic of care” and for a more compassionate and humane social and cultural environment in our universities.

But tellingly, when asked how his message of kindness and care was received by universities, he responded that it was “with neither kindness nor care.”

This goes to the heart of the problem. How do we create an ethic of care, a compassionate, kind and supportive environment, in the face of a hyper-competitive academic culture that pushes hard for individual excellence and achievement? This takes us to the issue of the organizational environment of our universities. What business are we in?

Is it just a matter of grade points and publications, intense research and funding? Or is it, in the words of Dr. Evan Adams, chief medical officer of the First Nations Health Authority and another conference speaker, ensuring that our students become “the best person possible” — not just in terms of grades, but as whole human beings?

What if the success of our universities and colleges were measured in those terms? How might that change them for the better?


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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