Healthy universities: an example of a whole-system health-promoting setting

Newton, Joanne, Dooris, Mark T orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-5986-1660 and Wills, Jane (2016) Healthy universities: an example of a whole-system health-promoting setting. Global Health Promotion, 23 (1). pp. 57-65. ISSN 1757-9759

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The health-promoting settings approach is well established in health promotion, with organisational settings being understood as complex systems able to support human wellbeing and flourishing. Despite the reach and evident importance of higher education as a sector, ‘healthy universities’ has not received high-level international leadership comparable to many other settings programmes. This study explores how the concept of a healthy university is operationalised in two case study universities. Data collection methods included documentary analysis, observation field notes and semi-structured interviews with staff and students. Staff and students understood the characteristics of a healthy university to pertain to management processes relating to communication and to a respectful organisational ethos. Enhancers of health and wellbeing were feeling valued, being listened to, having skilled and supportive line managers and having a positive physical environment.
Inhibitors of health and wellbeing were having a sense of powerlessness and a lack of care and concern. The concept of the healthy university has been slow to be adopted in contrast to initiatives such as healthy schools. In addition to challenges relating to lack of theorisation, paucity of evidence and difficulties in capturing the added value of whole-system working, this study suggests that this may be due to both their complex organisational structure and the diverse goals of higher education, which do not automatically privilege health and wellbeing. It also points to the need for a wholeuniversity approach that pays attention to the complex interactions and interconnections between component parts and highlights how the organisation can function effectively as a social system.

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