higher ed

Wellness washing in higher ed

Created by the Historic Tale Construction Kit (thanks to Fi Daisy G for sending the link – I saw the gag on Twitter but couldn’t find the original so recreated it)

When the OU was going through its crisis in 2018, staff were suffering because of unrealistic demands, and in witnessing the institution they loved be undermined. Around this time we all received an email informing us that senior management were aware of the mental stress, and here were a bunch of resources on Resilience to help us cope. The implication of course was not that they should stop destroying the university, but that we should develop some more grit to cope with it. Let’s say it wasn’t well received.

Thankfully things at the OU have changed a lot since then and it is now a much more sympathetic environment. But this was the first time I’d experienced what might be termed “Wellness Washing”. Like greenwashing and openwashing, wellness washing is taking something that is generally perceived as good and desirable and cynically deploying it to one’s benefit.

Fast forward to the pandemic and this type of approach seems abundant in higher ed. A version of the meme I posted above did the rounds recently, but it’s about the fourth such one I’ve seen shared widely, which indicates it strikes a chord. They all suggest that higher ed doesn’t really want to grapple with the fundamental issues of mental health and wellbeing, but instead wants to use the sticking plaster of seminars and resources. Something has then been done, but you know, nothing has really been done. It seems like the Neoliberal Advice Bot is sometimes too close to the bone:

For instance, in a meeting the other day, I suggested that if we accepted staff were struggling because of the pandemic, and maybe operating at sub-optimal rate, then we could reduce the research income generation targets for this year. How everyone chuckled.

I genuinely appreciate that it’s complex, some staff still want to develop career paths and don’t want to slacken off, the institutions need to maintain finances and there are external pressures such as the REF. In addition, the wellness seminars are themselves often very useful for people, and it at least makes talking about these issues permissible. But they’re not the solution and all of us need to find creative ways to balance the different pressures on institutions and staff, otherwise I fear there may be a ‘stress debt’ which will impact later on, particularly in campus unis that have switched to online and been in emergency mode for a year. Then I fear that no amount of Wellness Wednesday emails will help.


  • Andy Diament

    ‘Thankfully things at the OU have changed a lot since then and it is now a much more sympathetic environment’

    Oh, how quickly such things change Martin, at least if you are an AL

  • Kate Sim

    “Thankfully things at the OU have changed a lot since then and it is now a much more sympathetic environment.”

    Hmmm, I think this plunged yesterday with the pulling of the AL contract.

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