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Universiteit Leiden

Advocating For Professors’ Mental Wellbeing in Educational InstitutionsTeachers who love teaching, teach children to love learning

Daniel Gafke Mendoza
Noah Kai Binan
Carmen Rueda Lindemann


A vast majority of university professors suffer from mental health issues. However, these remain underrepresented and unaddressed. Stress and heavy workloads are common causes of their poor mental wellbeing, which also often result in burnout. Poor mental wellbeing negatively impacts the education professors are meant to provide and lessen job satisfaction among teaching staff. In this project, three students reviewed literature on mental health issues from positive psychology, socio-political and educational science perspectives with a focus on how to improve mental wellbeing among educational staff. Personal testimonies were collected using informal interviews, as well as survey data. This knowledge, as well as existing literature, has been used to create four workshop sessions directed at (new) professors, PhD. students and new teaching staff to advocate for their mental wellbeing and give them the tools to flourish within a flawed system. The aim of this workshop is not to fix poor mental wellbeing among all educational professionals, but it is a step towards raising awareness for the issue and normalizing emotional validation, disclosure and vulnerability, among other crucial forms of interpersonal interactions.

Introduction: The Importance of this Redesign

‘Mental health awareness’ has gained increased importance over the past years, especially because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which became a breaking point for many people who had already been struggling. Educational institutions were impacted severely by the changing regulations and uncertainty, as educators and students found themselves interacting solely through a screen and the distinction between home and work became even blurrier. In other words, there was no shortage of stressors during this time (Pressley, 2021). Furthermore, while the mental implications for students were largely discussed, there was little consideration for the consequences on the mental wellbeing of teachers, unless it was related to the impact on their students (Ozamiz-Etxebarria et al., 2021). We hold the perspective that this is representative of a larger problem within education, namely the lack of normalization and inclusivity towards the mental wellbeing of educational professionals within the institution, as well as more systemic issues of precarity of work in academia and funding issues. Both these issues were relevant in the design of these workshops, though they cannot be effectively mitigated in this format.

Why a Workshop?

This redesign takes the form of a workshop because the literature suggests that this is the most effective way to support teachers’ social and emotional development (Talvio et al., 2016). Given that this workshop revolves around providing educational professionals with specific tools and resources to advocate for their own mental wellbeing (such as emotional disclosure and emotional validation), the lessons are most effective when interacting with similar others. The workshops will incorporate empirical findings from the fields of political science (diversity and inclusion), positive psychology and educational science. The introductory workshop includes exercises from all three disciplines. The content of each workshop will be depicted as in the diagram below (a more detailed agenda can be found in Appendix A). Lastly,  Appendix B contains hypothetical promotion material for the workshop.

Workshop 1 – Meaning and Purpose

Introduction Session

Workshop 2 – Advocating for Human Flourishing

Scientific Justification: Positive Psychology

Analysis of the problem

Due to the high workload and often also high emotional involvement, teaching professions have been documented as those with the highest degrees of burnout and emotional exhaustion (Johnson et al., 2005). Moreover, these professions often face organizational and administration pressures that they have little control over, which leads them to feel hopeless and affects their ability to flourish (Parker & Martin, 2009). Moreover, already-existing interventions for educational professionals tend to focus on helping teachers cope with burnout, rather than attempting to provide them with resources to support their wellbeing on a regular basis.

Our Solution

Positive psychology is a psychological perspective that concerns itself with advocating for individuals’ wellbeing in all areas of life (Waters & White, 2015). Originally, Seligman (2002) defined its purpose as ‘developing hope, courage, perseverance, interpersonal skill, honesty, capacity for insight and pleasure and future-mindedness.’ Therefore, it is largely applicable to this mental wellbeing workshop. Additionally, this perspective rests upon five pillars: positive emotion (taking part in healthy experiences), engagement (identifying and applying strengths), relationships (developing skills for connection with others), meaning (identify purpose in one’s pursuits) and accomplishment (maintaining a growth mindset and dealing with failure) (Falecki & Mann, 2021). The second workshop has been specifically designed to cover each of these pillars in combination with three empirically-supported exercises: reflective writing, emotional disclosure and love-kindness meditation.

Firstly, emotional disclosure is the act of speaking openly about one’s personal emotions or thoughts and it is correlated with positive wellbeing, especially when speaking to someone directly (Radcliffe et al., 2010). Therefore, through implementing this exercise we aim to normalize teachers confiding in one another and speaking openly about their emotional states. Furthermore, reflective writing is a form of emotional disclosure in which one specifically responds to prompts in the form of a personal reflection. It has also been associated with long-term healthy psychological functioning and increased intrinsic motivation  (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006). Both of the aforementioned exercises are related to the pillar ‘relationships’ because emotional vulnerability and expression are skills that facilitate connection with others (Radcliffe et al., 2010). Activity #2 is also related to the pillars ‘meaning’ and ‘engagement’ because it encourages participants to think about what they are doing and why. Additionally, it should be noted that the act of participating in the workshop classifies as the pillar ‘positive emotion’ because it is an opportunity for learning that will benefit one’s psychological development.

Moreover, the third activity is oriented towards the pillars ‘meaning’ and ‘accomplishment’ because characteristics of individuals that the participants admire are made salient, with the aim of evoking a feeling of inspiration and suggesting which aspects they could implement into their lives to become more similar to them.

Finally, mindfulness-based interventions have been implemented successfully in existing workshops to support teachers in the development of emotional skills (‘relationships’) and promoting empathy and compassion towards themselves and others (Jennings et al., 2011). Our aim is for teachers to adopt this mindset and apply it to their everyday experience to view themselves and their coworkers through an empathetic and compassionate lens, which will also facilitate them in employing the other tools that are demonstrated throughout this workshop.

Workshop 3 – Coping with Exclusion

Scientific Justification: Political Science

Among the different factors creating the need for this workshop is the way the Dutch university system is set up. This can be examined from a socio-political perspective that bases itself on a critique of Taylorism and aims to provide effective and sustainable ways of coping within the current educational system.

Analysis of the problem

The Dutch university system relies on Taylorist principles, such as regular high-stakes testing, standardised teaching activities and standardised assessment criteria, as seen in course syllabi that prescribe specific learning outcomes (Brown & Carr, 2019; Stoller et al., 2015). In Leiden University, for example, the time to grade exams is calculated for each instructor and included in paid working hours, with no compensation for working overtime. Thus, instructors are urged to perform in a standardised manner, which leads to a vast amount of diversity amongst educational professionals not being represented (Brown & Carr, 2019; Sandhu et al., 2013; Arday, 2021). Moreover, there is a lack of representation of neurodivergence among professors which strongly impacts teaching staff in universities and leads to high burn out rates and high incidences of other mental health issues. This problem has been increasing proportional to the workload of university teaching staff (Arday, 2021; Sabagh et al., 2018). Equipping teaching staff with tools to advocate for their mental health and creating a safe space where their concerns are heard helps create a more inclusive institution for staff experiencing mental health struggles. This workshop specifically caters to these needs, which results in a healthier environment.

Our solution

To start off this workshop, attendees introduce themselves and express how they are feeling and why. Talking about emotions opens the space to talk about emotions and helps attendees feel comfortable. At the same time, learning to express emotions helps the attendees acknowledge and cope with their emotions, which results in improved mental wellbeing (Berking & Wupperman, 2012). Simultaneously, we use this to encourage them to create or join support circles, such as the LGTBQ+ network or CasualLeiden to create a sense of belongingness and community among participants which encourages a sustained sense of self-worth (American Psychological Association, 2021).

Moreover, this sense of community is further established in the second exercise. First, attendees are asked to talk about a situation where they experienced discriminatory practices. Then, they talk in small groups and are asked to separate what happened, what that meant for them, and how that made them feel, followed by a validation exercise (Hightower, 2017). According to the American Psychological Association (2021), consciously analysing situations and receiving emotional validation protects participants from the harmful consequences of the mental stress involved in experiencing these situations. Additionally, it teaches sustainable coping methods.

Furthermore, this exercise enables instructors to better reflect on how they teach courses and makes them more aware of problems in their courses. At the same time, this allows teaching staff to more strongly reflect on how their own needs are considered in the courses they teach. This encourages critical reflection of the educational setup and thereby creates a more positive teaching environment in teaching students (Rush & Scherff, 2014). Additionally, doing this exercise among teaching staff increases the sense of community and collaborations among teaching staff (Little, 2002).

The final exercise encourages critical analysis of the current structure. Attendees are asked to go through course syllabi – one of their own, one of a colleague from the same field, and one of a colleague of another discipline. Consequently, they are asked to examine what in these courses causes stress to them and discuss these with each other. This exercise is recommended for repetition outside of the workshop. It allows teaching staff to more strongly reflect on their own needs, whilst normalizing vulnerable conversations with their peers, thereby creating a greater sense of community (Little, 2002). These exchanges are also encouraged for classroom settings, where they create a healthier environment also for students (Rush & Scherff, 2014).

Workshop 4 – Wellbeing and how it Influences Teaching Motivation

Scientific Justification: Educational Science

This section is meant to briefly summarize the negative consequences of university professors’ struggles with their mental wellbeing on the education they provide and will also present possible solutions. It will also justify these solutions from an educational science perspective.

Analysis of the problem

In recent years, the workload of professors has increased significantly, posing a threat to their mental wellbeing (Martini et al, 2019; Pace et al, 2019). The amount of professors who have indicated that they have suffered from burnout has increased, as well the levels of perceived work-related stress (Kinman & Wray, 2013; Pace et al, 2021). All of this negatively impacts the education professors are meant to provide (Branand & Nakamura, 2016). For example, a study realized by Martini et al. (2019) in northern Italy has shown that excessive requests regarding content of work and negative relationships with colleagues and/or students positively correlate with emotional exhaustion, thus decreasing mental wellbeing. Another study done by Zhao & S. Ding (2019) in China showed that more than half of professors showed symptoms of burnout.

Our solution

“Engaged, happy teachers foster engaged, happy students.” (Branand, B. and Nakamura, J., 2016). Several studies have illustrated this quote. For example, a study done by Sutton & Wheatley (2003) has shown that teachers’ positive emotions positively affected student motivation and behavior. Another study, done by Duckworth, Quinn & Seligman (2009) has illustrated that students of positive teachers were more effective and showed greater academic gains. This, again, illustrates the importance of the mental wellbeing of teachers.

Therefore, we now tend our attention on possible solutions to prevent the problems described previously. One exercise, which has yielded significantly positive results, is the “count-your-blessings” exercise (Chan, 2013a). During an eight-week time period, teachers were required to record a weekly log of three good things or events that had happened to them during the week. At the end of each week, they were asked to reflect on them with questions like: “What did I receive and what did the receiving tell about me?” (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). The following results demonstrated an increase in life satisfaction and a decrease in emotional exhaustion.

Lastly, positive relationships with students is crucial for teachers’ emotional wellbeing. Support offers feelings of comfort and leads to people feeling admired and valued (Zimmerman, Dormann & Dollard 2011). A form of support that students can offer is the evidence of learning and intellectual growth. This can be a source of motivation for teachers. This way, the quality of teaching by teachers and learning by students can become a virtuous circle if the two directions of the positive relationship are considered and enhanced. (Darabi et al. 2016; Hagenauer & Volet, 2014). Therefore, we believe that if the workshop is held by students, the previously-mentioned effects will contribute positively and will render the workshop more effective in supporting teachers’ mental wellbeing, because it is an opportunity to form bonds with students.

Conclusion and Limitations

In conclusion, by designing and potentially implementing these four workshops, the authors hope to alert the largely unheard needs of teaching staff at universities and place their mental health on the agenda of educational institutions. The workshops each cover different but overlapping perspectives, namely positive psychology, a socio-political critique of Taylorism, and educational science. Moreover, the four workshops teach participants tools and methods that are useful to advocate for and address their mental health concerns, whilst also contributing to community building. Furthermore, attendees are encouraged to increase the salience of teaching staff´s mental health as a point of conversation whilst also using some of these exercises to create a healthier classroom environment, which benefits students’ learning as well. Through the tools taught in the workshop, the authors hope that teaching staff can at least to a limited extent address their mental health needs.

As the paragraph above suggests, the authors also acknowledge various limitations of this design. Firstly, the authors themselves are students, and are therefore not fully able to understand the needs of university teaching staff beyond what has been disclosed in conversations with them. Another issue is that there are various other perspectives relevant to the mental wellbeing of university teaching staff, thereby creating possible further avenues for tools and exercises for teaching staff that have not been considered here. Furthermore, the authors acknowledge that mental health struggles of teaching staff are due to systemic problems and developments that exceed the scope of this project. In other words, the authors cannot be directly responsible for structural change. However, the authors do hope that creating awareness of the mental health struggles of teaching staff will contribute to a more systemic change in education systems in the long run.

Appendix A: Detailed Workshop Agenda

Please click here to access the detailed workshop agenda.

Appendix B: Workshop Promotion Flyer




What is the target audience?

PhD students working towards becoming a professor, as well as young professors. The workshop is of course also geared at professors, but currently especially younger teaching staff suffers from overworking. Thus, the workshops are geared at this group.

Is it mandatory?

No, attendance is voluntary. Participants may select which workshops. Attendance for one workshop does not imply an obligation to attend the rest of them.

Is this workshop series part of a larger program?

No. Part of the problem that is being addressed by this workshop is that there are few existing initiatives that allow professors to invest in their mental wellbeing. Therefore, there are currently no existing programs that this could be a part of.

How do I apply?

Application is possible by scanning the QR code or sending an email to the address listed on the flyer. Flyers will be made visible on the university website, screens throughout the building and will be incorporated into email newsletters.

Will this workshop reduce the stress from my workload?

No. We are not implying that our workshop holds the solution to everyone’s mental health struggles. We intend to provide an empirically-supported toolbox that educational professionals can employ at their own choosing. The aim is also to bring the topic of mental health for professors on the agenda of educational institutions in order to instigate structural changes.

Are there admission requirements?

No. Anyone who is willing to take the time to join is welcome and no prior experience or knowledge is required to attend the sessions. Participants are not required to attend all sessions if they do not want to.

How did you pick the maximum participant capacity?

We picked a maximum capacity of sixteen participants because a.) We have no prior workshop-giving experience and this is a new initiative that is not yet established, making this a trial-run, b.) we have no estimation of how many professors will sign up as this has never been done before and awareness may still be low, c.) learning in small groups ensures maximal peer to peer interaction and approach can be more individualized d.) learning in small groups is more effective than larger groups (Webb, 1989).

Why did you pick this programme duration?

The sessions will take place four times and last three hours each. We based our workshop design on similar empirically-researched workshops, such as CARE; Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (Jennings et al., 2011).


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