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“Not every organization readily accepts mental health as a strategic priority. Not every organization has these types of resources readily available. But that shouldn’t stop you or anyone, as a manager or leader, from supporting the cause.”

That was the advice Tuesday from Merica Shepherd, senior director of Total Rewards, the health and well-being benefits program at the University of Virginia, during a conference at Johns Hopkins University on challenges facing graduate faculty and students.

The conference, the National Summit on Workplace Mental Health and Wellbeing, hosted by the university’s school of public health, comes on the heels of research that found mental health among college students and employees worsened last year

Such trends undercuts a college community’s ability to strengthen and grow, said Joni Troester, senior assistant vice president for human resources at the University of Iowa, during a Tuesday panel of leaders from large public institutions. 

“Safety and security, and specifically psychological safety, is really foundational for well-being on our campuses, and that’s true whether you’re a student, a graduate student, a faculty member, adjunct, postdoc, or staff member,” Troester said.

‘We need scalability’

The University of Iowa relies heavily on institutional surveys to make data-driven decisions around mental health resources, Troester said. Employees are asked if they believe their supervisors and physical work environment support well-being. The addition of well-being questions to student surveys is underway, she said.

“At the end of the day, probably what I’ve learned most in the last few years, is the qualitative data — really listening to understand where people are coming from — is what makes a difference,” she said.

Troester, along with her counterpart in student life, co-chairs the university’s well-being committee, composed of 26 students, faculty, staff and representatives from the university’s medical center. The members further break into groups focusing on topics like mental health, basic needs and the physical campus.

When sorting through ideas and feedback, scope is crucial for a large institution like the University of Iowa.

“We need scalability. We need to embed it into the culture and systems that already exist,” she said. 

Troester highlighted two new initiatives to address mental health on campus.

In 2022, the University of Iowa introduced a texting-based service, recharge+, designed to improve resilience among employees. For a month, users received behavioral nudges to proactively encourage positive mental health, such as a suggestion to take a break outside or reevaluate how the day gets scheduled. Over 3,500 University of Iowa employees used the service, and 53% of employees reported higher levels of resilience after 30 days, according to Troester.

The university also began requiring mental health awareness training for incoming students, Troester said. The online simulation-based program, offered by educational software company Kognito, is meant to make students aware of mental health red flags, both in themselves and their peers, and teach them how to start conversations around this issue.

Faculty and staff have also been heavily encouraged to complete the roughly 35-minute module. About 1,800 of them have taken the training so far, Troester said, and that number will continue to rise as the module is incorporated into the employee onboarding process.

Viewing employees holistically

Academics share similarities with military veterans and healthcare workers, in that they are geared toward service and working for something bigger than themselves, according to Kelcey Stratton, clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Michigan.

“There is a unique confluence of work and identity and purpose that is so important in these kinds of occupations. And yet, it comes with unrelenting demands and stressors,” Stratton said.

The University of Michigan, like many institutions, offers an employee assistance program. Interest in short-term counseling has risen by 35% to 40% in the last few years, holding steady since spiking during the early days of the pandemic, according to Stratton. 

The university has also worked to help address employee challenges outside of the workplace. For instance, it recently expanded its emergency hardship program to help employees weather economic instability. That program has provided one-time financial assistance for many years, but more recently has begun offering coaches to help navigate external services, like housing benefits and energy bill assistance, Stratton said.

Being a state flagship means the University of Michigan has more resources than other institutions — but that also brings challenges.

“It’s a large community,” Stratton said. “Not everyone is going to need or want the same thing.”

In some situations, that has led to two beneficial ideas seeming to be diametrically opposed.

“The flexibility to work remotely or in a hybrid fashion may come at the cost of some social connection or opportunities to build community,” Stratton said. “So broad organizational policies may not work very well to meet the nuances of day-to-day life.”

Mental health across departments

Panelists stressed the importance of cross-campus collaboration. Shepherd, from the University of Virginia, urged college leaders to think of mental health as more than an organizational responsibility or a box to check. 

“By no means am I insinuating that we’re responsible for the treatment,” Shepherd said. “But research does show that exhibiting supportive behavior makes a major impact.”

She gave examples such as holding one-on-one meetings with direct reports, being present during conversations, and acknowledging and openly discussing any challenges that may be top of mind.

“Stigma stays pervasive through lack of understanding, discomfort and uncertainty around the topic,” she said.

If managers brush off mental health as solely a human resources problem, that diffusion of responsibility dramatically reduces the likelihood a staff member will come forward when they are struggling, Shepherd said.

“An employee coming forward to say they’re struggling is improbable — if not nearly impossible — if they have a manager that they don’t trust or if they have a manager who makes it clear that they don’t care,” she said.

University employees will often stay quiet if they believe being open about their mental health issues could result in managerial bias against them, or in gossip or negative reactions from coworkers, according to Shepherd. 

“Manager support is absolutely linked to reducing stigma and being part of the solution in a very significant way,” she said.