Concerns with Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Academy - Conversations with Senior University Leaders

Year: 2019

Author: Scott, Shelleyann, Scott, Donald, Anne, Abdoulaye, Dudar, Linda, Crosby, Stacy, Fournier, Elaine

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This research is part of the International Study of Leadership Development in Higher Education and involved in-depth interviews with 21 senior university leaders (Provosts, heads of learning centres, heads of HR) across Canada and follows the interpretive paradigm. The overarching aim of this study is to identify how effective current leadership development offerings are in supporting university leaders, specifically deans and associate deans. This subtheme of mental and physical health and wellbeing concerns emerged from discussions of the changes in leadership demands and expectations arising in contemporary universities. Provosts reported deans were struggling to address concerns with mental and physical health and wellbeing at all levels of the organization – faculty, staff, students, and even deans themselves who were struggling to maintain an appropriate work-life balance which resulted in significant stress and health issues. Findings indicate there were distinct leadership development implications in the rise of mental ill-health within the academy, not only in dealing with difficult people, but also in identifying when mental illness is a factor in conflict and/or how to address these complex situations when they arise. Senior leaders indicated deans were largely unprepared to manage contentious situations within the academy, and certainly unprepared to manage incidents triggered by mental illness. Even though the literature about decanal leadership addresses the importance of building capacity and promoting positive cultures and relationships as crucial to decanal effectiveness and success, this theme of mental and physical unwellness in the academy appears to be new and relatively unexplored. While there are discussions about toxic leadership, difficult conversations, and the importance of psychological safety within academia we posit that concerns with mental health and wellbeing may be an extension of these worrying leadership themes. We delve deeper to examine some of the factors that may be influencing the prevalence of conflict, physical, and psychological ill-health in the academy. Questions are raised as to whether these wellness issues are negative legacies of increasing academic workloads, the push for more impactful teaching and research, and negative cultures within the ‘neoliberal’ academy, or are these a natural extension of toxic leadership or extremist dimensions of academic freedom? Implications for leadership development will be discussed. This study will be of interest to all in academia, especially university leaders and administrators who are charged with supporting their faculty and students. Additionally, leadership developers and HR personnel may find these findings relevant in informing leadership development programming.