Niki Ellis | R U OK(anagan style)


R U OK(anagan style)

06 Jul 2017, Posted by Professor Niki Ellis in Inside OHS articles, WHS

Ross Gittins wasn’t losing any sleep over cuts to universities in this year’s budget. In a Sydney Morning Herald article titled ‘Our universities aren’t earning the money we’re giving them’ he laid out his criticisms. They can be summarised as:

  • that research in Australia fails to lead sufficiently to innovation because university culture favours publication in high status foreign journals;
  • the lack of value placed on teaching; and
  • the bloated administrations.

Having recently spent a decade in this sector, I am fascinated by how universities have so far failed to respond to obvious discontent with their contribution to society and the risk of disruption.

This week however I came across something developed by and for the university sector that I think could be very useful to the rest of industry as it shambles around trying to work out what a mentally healthy workplace should look like.

In 2015, the Okanagan Charter for Health Promoting Universities and Colleges was released. It was developed at a conference attended by a cross section of staff from universities and colleges from 45 countries.

The Charter states: “Health Promoting Universities and Colleges transform the health and sustainability of our current and future societies, strengthen communities and contribute to the wellbeing of people, places and the planet.”


Staff & student health at core


The rationale is that universities have a unique role with regard to the development of individuals, communities, societies and cultures, and that health is a key ingredient for successful development at all of these levels. The health of their staff and students are core business in this approach. However, in parallel to corporate social responsibility there is a commitment to their community, now, and to the communities of the future.

The approach has been developed from the health promotion discipline. There is a terrific self-audit tool which can be found at the UK site ‘Healthy Universities’. You have to register but it is free.

The framework for the audit tool is shown below:

Leadership and Governance

  • Corporate Engagement and Responsibility
  • Strategic Planning and Implementation
  • Stakeholder Engagement

Service Provision

  • Health Services
  • Wellbeing and Support Services

Faculties and Environment

  • Campus and Building
  • Food
  • Travel
  • Physical Activity, Recreational and Social facilities
  • Accommodation

Communication, Information and Marketing

Academic, personal, social and professional development

  • Curriculum
  • Research, enterprise and knowledge transfer
  • Lorem ipsum

Professional development



WHS authorities still trying to re-orient to mental health


Reading the self-audit tool as a workplace health and safety (WHS) practitioner is fascinating as it is so familiar, but at the same time quite different.

There is a strong emphasis on leadership and whole-of-business approach, as well as a commitment to consultation with stakeholders.

However, under the Okanagan approach, the emphasis on community links is much stronger, as is the emphasis on basing interventions on evidence, and a commitment to ongoing evaluation. There is also a sophisticated understanding of how health is deeply connected to their business of research and education.

Perhaps if we in WHS had such a strong commitment to evidence-based interventions we would not be in the situation we are in now with WHS authorities still trying to re-orient their inspectorates to mental health, and solutions of uncertain effectiveness being peddled to workplaces and individuals.

The University of Sydney is one of the local higher education institutions that has picked up this framework. Their local version aims to promote the health and wellbeing of our community. It intends to do this by influencing people, places, policies and practice.

It has five guiding principles:

  1. Evidence informed and evidence generating;
  2. Collaboration;
  3. Holistic view of health and wellbeing – physical and mental health being intertwined;
  4. University-wide: academic, professional staff, management, students and student organisations, across all sections; and
  5. Population-level, utilising existing resources (services for individuals are addressed separately).

Their initial three priorities are:

  • Mental wellbeing;
  • Move more, sit less; and
  • Eat better.


Mental wellbeing blueprint based on evidence review


Now this is where it gets interesting. The mental wellbeing group, in keeping with the principle of evidence-informed interventions, did an evidence review culminating in a: ‘A blueprint for student mental wellbeing in universities.’

This blueprint identified four effective interventions:

  • Consider alternative academic strategies: Examples of this include pass/fail grades rather than five-tiered marks, courses with smaller segments, timetabling – in other words product and job design;
  • Infusing mental health knowledge in the curriculum: in other words mainstreaming mental health literacy into their development program;
  • Developing and promoting the use of e-health technologies; and
  • Building healthy physical environments: “Even a window giving a view to the outside landscape can positively impact the mental wellbeing of students in that room.”

No messing about here. No “We want to be a mentally healthy workplace but we can’t get our heads around redesigning jobs”. No “We want to be a mentally healthy workplace but the only thing that can change is the behaviour of our workers, we will help them to cope better with our toxic managers”.

Mind you, I may be speaking too soon. It hasn’t happened yet, it is a blueprint.

Clearly there is a need to bring this work in line with WHS. It would be a pity for the university to develop academic strategies to improve student mental health and wellbeing and not take into account staff needs at the same time.

I understand that there is interest in using the Canadian standard on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace for this, which is sensible as it is an integrated approach.

By that I mean it combines the prevention of harm from work-related psychosocial risks with the promotion of health and wellbeing and the management of illness.

A few years ago I read in the New York Times that higher education was one of the industries at high risk of disruption. It would be ironic, wouldn’t it, if slow-to-evolve WHS was disrupted by ideas coming from such a sector.



First published in Thomson Reuters Inside OHS, 04/07/2017

Inside OHS Editor: Stephanie D’Souza; (02) 8587 7684; Stephanie.D’