The word “wellness” appears at first sight to be a neologism synonymous with “wellbeing”, an antonym of “illness”, created in continental Europe and, according to some, overused ever since. In fact, the word has been in use in the English language for many years. Dr. Halbert L.Dunn famously spoke of it in a lecture series related to holistic health that he gave in the late 1950s and later entitled his book High Level Wellness (1961). From the 1970s onwards, the term became a buzzword for activities related to promoting physical, spiritual and mental health. Nowadays, it is understood as a catchall term. It has been used to promote yoga, meditation, the healing arts, martial arts, diet, music, fashion and literature. In 2015, the global wellness industry was valued at $3.7 trillion.
Since it seems that wellness has become a subculture, academics might wonder what place this seemingly New Age concept has in the practicalities and analytical nature of the academe. I believe wellness has an important role to play at the macro organizational level as well as the micro level when dealing with individual assignments, students and staff. There are practical and innate ways that wellness can be encouraged to foster academia as a place of work, study and development. One might ask why exactly wellness is important for staff and students in higher education; how wellness can be applied practically and what responsibility it has to encourage wellness. This article will explore some of these queries from the author’s personal perspective of working in different cultures where wellness is both recognized and ignored to different effects.
Why wellness is important for staff and students in higher education
Academia shares the social, time and financial pressures of modern living. Thought is its mainstay, producing ideas and innovation to help the betterment of humanity for generations to come. Without a balance of wellness in an academic or student’s experience, mental and physical wellness can deteriorate and also negatively impact the production of ideas. The administrative load for academics has increased notably over the past two decades and there has been a seismic shift in how universities, both private and public, respond to students from the perspective of being stakeholders. These factors could create rifts between academics and their students, newly reconfigured as clients. Students too, face struggles adapting to a research environment in an era of the Internet of things where original thought and creativity lay dormant. Wellness is key to overcoming this rift and to alleviate any illness that could come from an overstressed body and mind. For staff and students it brings balance and effectiveness to their work and study schedules.
How can wellness be applied practically?
Theoretically, this sounds good. Practically, it is easily applicable within the framework duties and responsibilities that staff and students already have. For instance, the “pastoral care” and student mentoring responsibilities that staff have, can be used to encourage students to take good “self care” during busy points in the semester. Encouraging people to act autonomously to live healthily and take care of their wellbeing is key. This might be as simple as encouraging a colleague or student to eat a healthy meal, to take rest or to share de-stressing techniques. In many institutions there are excellent counseling and medical facilities for both staff and students, which can address mental and physical health in a professional manner. Staff and students should certainly avail of these professional services but a basic awareness of wellness could avoid referral to these services.
Other ways to increase an awareness of wellness would be to encourage wardens and resident tutors in student or staff accommodation on campus to arrange activities based around the theme of self-care, throughout the semester. Curriculum planning can take the wellness of staff and students into consideration by scheduling workloads effectively so as assignments and grading are issued in a piecemeal fashion without undue overloading at certain points in the semester. In some institutions, there are links with local charitable associations and self-help groups and volunteering events to enable both staff and students to also expend their energy in ways conducive to social wellbeing.
Does the academe have a responsibility to encourage wellness?
This final question is contentious since the academe is held by many to be a bastion of freethinking. If, for instance, I prefer to uphold unhealthy life choices, then it is neither my employer nor my educator’s business to counteract that. Indeed, any responsibility for encouraging wellness without consultation might be met with resistance from stakeholders and clients if we consider academia as a business model. Ultimately, academia encourages autonomy of thought in principle. This is extended to one’s health and lifestyle choices. What is fundamental is that in the process of producing ideas; by products that are not conducive to wellness have the potential to be produced. The more autonomous we can become in our actions, the greater sense of wellbeing we will have to be able to share with our fellow colleagues and students. This role modelling is the true autonomy we have.
 Daniela Blei, “The False Promises of Wellness Culture” JSTOR Daily, 4/1/17, accessed 5/1/19. https://daily.jstor.org/the-false-promises-of-wellness-culture/
 Diela Blei, ibid.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SearchHigher or Warwick Employment Group.