As institutions of higher learning aim to establish a foundation of well-being across their campuses, four key factors should be considered for program development to drive the intended benefits. Firstly, administrators should agree on a unified definition for the terms that are used as part of the objectives. Secondly, there must be an institution-wide shift in focus from support to preventative approaches. Thirdly, strategies should include and involve all departments across the organization. Finally, both the creation of and contribution to a community through student participation and active citizenship is required.

From support to prevention

For well-being initiatives to influence students through their studies and prepare them for their future careers, universities need to shift the primary focus from a reactive one with support services for students in need to a proactive one which minimizes the need for this support. 

Preventative strategies can include activities that are integrated into the syllabus in addition to extra-curricular and off-campus opportunities. Extra-curricular workshops offered throughout the academic year, as well as university partnerships with wellness organizations, can give students new knowledge on both mind and body, consequently giving them a sense of control over their own thoughts and reactions.

The aim of prevention should be to use well-being practices as a way to maintain good health as opposed to treat a decline in health once it occurs.

Cross-departmental approach

The objective of increasing well-being is not the responsibility of one department or committee on campus, but rather a collective effort across the institution. For this reason, a strategy that involves all departments and staff is necessary before implementing changes which aim to improve or support well-being.

A ‘well-being strategy’ can include a scaffolding approach, with students building on the knowledge and skills they gained in the previous year, as they do in their academic modules.  Such a strategy would also have to consider policies on inclusivity across campus, both in the physical structures as well as the teaching techniques and assessment formats used. During this process, student representatives should be part of the planning and development of strategy outlines to ensure that student input is received and taken into account. 

Ensuring that all students have the necessary academic support to keep up with their courses is an equally important component of a cross-departmental preventative well-being programme. Helping students stay on track through academic skills workshops can help allay student anxieties and give students a positive outlook on their academic standing. Academic support can take the form of a dedicated center on campus or through peer and other tutoring opportunities facilitated by the university.

An institution-wide approach to well-being helps ensure that wellness practices underpin all components of university life for staff and students, making it more likely that they will adopt these practices routinely.

Community links

A sense of community has been found to be one of the most important elements of well-being. For students, this means both being part of and active contributors to groups within and outside the university. Developing connections through sports teams, social and academic clubs, and charity organizations helps lead students to authentic experiences outside the classroom. This also promotes student awareness of practical skills, and helps students enhance non-academic skills they already have.

Universities must also direct students to social practices outside the institution so that students are aware of the opportunities that exist in their region. This can be done through lessons on active citizenship, a topic that can be incorporated into all fields of study. Furthermore, organizations can develop a reward scheme to recognize student volunteer and other social efforts.

Connectedness beyond the classroom and campus expands the knowledge and experience of students, gives them a sense of belonging, and promotes involvement in their society.

The development of well-being programs in higher education requires planning and assessment. Defining the terms being used allows effective measurement of the intended outcomes, which should be preventative rather than reactive in nature. A cross-departmental approach along with a strong push towards community contributions enables students to view well-being practices as part of their university life and not as a separate system to be used only in times of poor health. The objectives of holistic well-being programs in higher education are multi-faceted, and include the maintenance of physical and mental health, inclusivity, networking, and active citizenship. 

Mariam Abonil is a Senior Lecturer and Head of the Wellness Office at MDX Dubai.