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Research Report

Three ways to support campus well-being as a university leader

January 31, 2022, By Kate Brown, Associate Director of Research Discovery and Design

Mental health has consistently topped the list of university leader concerns through the pandemic. ACE surveyed university leaders on multiple occasions across the last year, and each time, mental health has garnered the number one spot—above long-term financial viability and enrolment numbers.

My team and I have spent most of this year researching campus-wide well-being best practices through an executive-level lens. Through conversations with university leaders, chief wellness officers, heads of student support, provosts and other key well-being stakeholders, we identified three essential priorities for senior leaders to advance campus well-being work.

Most pressing challenges facing university leaders due to COVID-19

  1. Mental health of students
  2. Mental health of academic staff
  3. Long-term financial viability
  4. Enrolment numbers for spring semester 2021
  5. Racial equity issues

1. Set and promote a shared language and vision for well-being

The university leader sets the tone for institutional priorities, and well-being is no exception. We consistently heard from partners that well-being must be a campus-wide effort, and the support of leadership is a key ingredient to creating a campus culture of well-being.

Step one to setting the tone is establishing a shared vision and language so campus community members feel empowered to engage in well-being initiatives and dialogue.

3 key considerations when establishing a language and well-crafted vision for campus well-being

  • Promoted widely and effectively

  • Inclusive of academic staff

  • Consistent for the entire university

Although we don’t often think of the university leader as a key player in health and well-being promotion, we’ve seen countless examples through the pandemic that demonstrate the pivotal role executive-level leaders play in ensuring the well-being language and vision are truly engrained in campus culture.

Case study

University of Calgary leaders promote well-being via video testimonials about mental health

The University of Calgary promoted awareness of mental health resources and stigma through videos featuring senior institutional leaders who talked candidly about their own experiences with mental health. These personal stories normalised conversations around mental health, solidified the institution’s commitment to well-being, and encouraged help-seeking.

University leaders’ primary role: work with leaders who promote well-being on campus to identify opportunities to spark dialogue about well-being, normalise help-seeking, and reinforce well-being as a campus-wide priority.

2. Create a collaborative culture around well-being

Misconceptions about well-being inhibit collaboration around well-being work, which inevitably impedes progress. For example, the enduring view that well-being should solely be “owned” by student support holds one department responsible for a goal that requires input, effort, and resources from stakeholders across campus. Additionally, this misconception enables academic instructors to deprioritise identifying, understanding, and fulfilling their role in campus well-being.

Collaboration is crucial to the success of any campus well-being strategy. Below we’ve highlighted an example of how the University of British Columbia fostered collaboration among senior leaders around campus well-being strategy:

Case study

The University of British Columbia fosters well-being collaboration among senior leaders

A strong example of collaboration among leadership comes from The University of British Columbia (UBC). UBC hosted a half-day workshop for senior leaders to help leaders visualise, plan, and collaborate about how their specific unit would contribute to the priorities identified in UBC’s well-being strategic plan.

The university leader gathered the group and kicked off the workshop with a keynote to emphasise the importance of well-being. Coming out of the workshop, leaders made 46 system-wide commitments across six well-being priority areas. Read more about the workshop in UBC’s post-workshop report.

Unviersity leaders’ primary role: As university leader, you set the tone by bringing leaders together and providing dedicated time, resources, and space to embed well-being at the senior level.

Working across siloes in universities is never easy, but through our conversations with campus leaders, we heard three primary reasons many leaders feel investing time and energy into creating a collaborative culture around well-being is worth it:

Why should campus leaders invest in fostering collaboration around campus well-being?

  1. Reduces duplicative efforts and encourages sharing of best practices around campus
  2. Lowers barriers to collaboration on other important university priorities
  3. Improves the outcome of well-being work by incorporating more perspectives across campus

3. Maximise the impact of well-being on other institutional priorities

Through our conversations, many leaders shared that there is growing recognition of the positive ripple effects of improving well-being (better academic outcomes, greater alumni affinity, improved employee satisfaction and retention), but unfortunately, these benefits are seldom shared with the campus community.

By amplifying well-being’s potential to move the needle on other institutional goals and priorities, leaders promote and capture the benefits of the wide-spread positive impact of well-being efforts. Moving into the next academic year, begin actively searching for opportunities to promote well-being’s impact on other university goals such as the two highlighted below:


Much time and effort go into creating a well-crafted well-being strategy. Progressive institutions are maximising the benefits of these strategies by using them as a compelling gift opportunity for donors. Through COVID-19, well-being is increasingly an area of interest among donors. We heard from partners that a well-crafted strategy can often double as a great gift proposal, and any impact reports from well-being initiatives also serve as meaningful impact reports for donors.

University leaders’ primary role: promote the cross-priority impact of well-being work and support efforts to uncover new ways well-being is, or could, move the needle on other institutional priorities

Student success

Students who are resilient, have the knowledge and tools to manage challenges, and seek help when needed, tend to persist and perform stronger than students who lack those skills. As institutions make targeted efforts to increase student well-being, promoting the positive impacts of this work on academic success can help key campus stakeholders remain engaged and committed to playing a role in supporting campus well-being.

University leaders’ primary role: promote the cross-priority impact of well-being work and support efforts to uncover new ways well-being is, or could, move the needle on other institutional priorities

“It was the first multimillion-dollar gift I asked for, and let me tell you, it was the easiest thing to do. The vision was so clear – they did not need much convincing. Donors see if they have healthier people that’s good for the bottom line.”

– Vice Provost for Student Affairs