The importance of knowing your staff: tackling mental ill-health across the higher education workforce | AUA Blog

Verity Westgate FAUA MA, MSc, MCLIP
Research Coordinator (Critical Care)
University of Oxford

Mental health problems amongst university students has been a prominent issue for a while.  We are also increasingly seeing attention paid to the mental health problems in academics.  But what about poor mental health amongst us administrative staff?  As someone who has worked in university administration for twelve years whilst living with recurrent depression and generalised anxiety disorder, I know how important it is for managers to take the time to think about how they handle mental ill-health in the workplace.

University culture

We often work in relatively lonely and unsupported roles; our value to the institution is frequently unappreciated.  The peaks and troughs of the academic year and the associated variable workload, often with high pressures, can be hard to manage.  Lack of flexibility and control over duties can make day to day work challenging.  This environment can exacerbate issues for those with mental health problems.  There is still a strong stigma attached to having mental health problems even though they affect so many people.  We fear being seen as less reliable, less efficient or jeopardising our career prospects if we admit to having a mental health problem.  Creating an open culture where it is possible to talk about mental health is vital.

Knowing your employees

Often the key to spotting mental ill health is a change or changes in someone’s typical behaviour.  These might include:

  • changed attendance patterns, such as lateness or working longer hours
  • psychological symptoms, such as indecision or tearfulness
  • behavioural symptoms, such as withdrawal or irritability
  • physical symptoms, such as fatigue or rapid changes in weight


Regular catch-ups with all of your staff can help you know your employees well and to spot early signs of mental ill-health.  It can also make “return to work” interviews less stressful if the employee needs to take sick leave due to their mental health.

Practical help

We have a duty under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments for those with disabilities, which includes mental health alongside physical disabilities.  This could comprise:

  • changes to working patterns, such as start and finish times or occasional home working
  • support with work, such as more frequent supervisions or additional training
  • modifying the physical environment, such as moving the employee somewhere quieter or giving them the chance to book a meeting room for quiet space when they need to concentrate on a task.
  • Ask the individual what will help them.  Everyone experiences mental ill-health differently and a one-size fits all approach will not be helpful.


Several organisations provide helpful guidance for supporting staff who are dealing with a mental health problem.  These include Mind (, Mental Health First Aid England ( and Mindful Employer (  Both Mind ( and the Royal College of Psychiatrists ( provide excellent online information about the different mental health conditions and treatments for mental ill-health.

Verity Westgate is a Research Coordinator for the Kadoorie Centre, part of the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences, at the University of Oxford.  She is a member of the Oxford University Disabled Staff Network and the Staff Disability Advisory Group, delivers training on Mental Ill-Health in the Workplace and was Highly Commended as Equality and Diversity Champion in the 2018 University of Oxford Vice Chancellor’s Diversity Awards.

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