Written by Rosie Neill

Head of marketing

Our special guest for this week’s university and college staff webinar was Pete Quinn. Pete is a consultant to UK and HK universities. He focuses on well-being initiatives, disability inclusion, authentic allyship and conscious decision making. 

Pete highlighted the latest research regarding the impact of financial concerns on student and staff wellbeing. He also made some practical suggestions for how universities and colleges can address these.

Definitions of wellbeing and well-being

First things first: ‘wellbeing’ and ‘well-being’ are terms used often, but what do they really mean?

Definition 1:

Wellbeing encompasses the environmental factors that affect us, and the experiences we have throughout our lives. These can fall into traditional policy areas of economy, health, education and so on. But wellbeing also crucially recognises the aspects of our lives that we determine ourselves: through our own capabilities as individuals; how we feel about ourselves; the quality of the relationships we have with other people; and our sense of purpose.”

What Works Centre for Wellbeing

Definition 2:

Well-being is a construct; and well-being, not happiness, is the topic of positive psychology. Well-being has five measurable elements that count toward it:

  • Positive emotion (of which happiness and life satisfaction are all aspects)
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning and purpose
  • Accomplishment
  • No one element defines well-being, but each contributes to it.

Seligman University of Pennsylvania

Aspects of university/college life that can affect wellbeing

There are some common identifiable elements that have emerged from research into factors that can impact on wellbeing. In the context of universities and colleges, these include:

  • Stress (usually in relation to lack of time to complete tasks)
  • Common mental health problems (anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are the four most common mental health problems in all countries globally)
  • Financial concerns
  • Sleep issues
  • Healthy diet and opportunity to exercise (limited by time or other barriers) 

It’s important to note that all of the above impact on staff wellbeing, just as they do student wellbeing.

wellbeing in universities and colleges

Financial concerns that can impact wellbeing

Research has shown that financial concerns can have a demonstrable effect on wellbeing. These concerns include:

1. Desiring financially stability

In 2019, Unite Students found that for 59% of students, their financial concerns were driven by the desire to be ‘financially stable’, rather than ‘being wealthy’ (13%) or ‘owning a house’ (32%). 

2. Having a lack of money and feeling financial pressure

Early findings from a report announced at the Scottish Students Mental Health Conference last week indicate that students’ primary negative financial concerns are a lack of money and feeling financial pressure. Yet, as we may perhaps expect, bursary provisions were found to have positive wellbeing associations.

3. Lack of financial literacy and numeracy

Another consideration is that the United Kingdom is near the bottom of the global league tables for literacy and numeracy, meaning that students often do not have necessary financial literacy and capability. 

4. Living in a household with financial strain

Latest NHS data (2020) has found a strong association between increased financial strain and child mental health. Children with a probable mental disorder were more than 2x as likely to live in a household that had fallen behind with payments (16.3%) than children unlikely to have a mental disorder (6.4%).

5. Being in debt

A previous meta-analysis study by Dr T. Richardson from Solent NHS Trust found we are 3x more likely to have a mental health problem if we are in debt. Although, the level of debt is not as impactful as the amount of stress and worry experienced around the fact of being in debt itself. An additional finding was that the inability to pay bills impacts on self-esteem and agency, but taking action is a protective factor.

Reducing the ‘cost’ of financial concerns on student wellbeing

The number of students with financial concerns and requiring financial support from their university seems to be increasing.

For instance, nearly ¼ of all the young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are just beginning an undergraduate degree, with an 8% increase in the number of students accepted into university from POLAR4 quintile 1 (source: UCAS).

It’s also important to think about postgraduate students who are often more reliant on paid work to supplement their studies than undergraduates. These students will no doubt have  been affected by the impact of the pandemic on jobs in the hospitality and retail industries.

What can universities and colleges do?

  • Embed information on financial support into teaching and learning messages
  • Get marketing teams onboard with conveying the ‘real’ side of student life and encouraging conversation around financial concerns
  • Promote and normalise funds available to students
  • Remind students (and tutors) of resources to help alleviate stress, such as the Blackbullion platform and blog for students.
  • Learn from ‘healthy workplaces’

What can we learn from ‘healthy workplaces’?

Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey 2019 looked at data from 150,000 employees across 430 organisations. It found that, on average, 7.9 days of productivity are lost to financial concerns each year. This has implications for both staff and students.

With relevant information and line manager support, this can be reversed to almost 6 days of added productivity. But this can only be successfully provided if it is:

  • Underpinned by leadership – staff should use reporting chains to try and make the point that financial concerns need to be addressed at a strategic level
  • Engaged with at board level – the impact of financial concerns with student wellbeing can also be seen as a retention issue, so are students and staff being provided with both the education to improve financial literacy, as well as financial support?
  • Paired with line manager capability – are teaching and learning staff equipped with enough information to encourage students to take agency and ownership of their financial situation as a regular, incremental step?
pete quinn financial literacy

Taking a whole university approach

In these challenging and uncertain times, universities have lots of competing priorities. But, as Pete highlighted, both staff and student wellbeing is being impacted by financial concerns – arguably now more than ever before. 

In summary, for students, this can be addressed with prompt financial planning, information, advice and support, all aligned with the expectation that financial literacy is a successful student attribute. This applies to all, including postgraduate and international students. 

For staff and all frontline employees at universities and colleges, additional check-ins are needed from employers and line managers.

If you’re not leadership yourself, consider sending a strategic message to leadership highlighting: 

  • The demand for financial support currently and that this needs to be promoted and delivered as quickly and effectively as possible (particularly given the demographic of the 2020 intake) 
  • That students will remember the support they’re given (or not given) 
  • That an effective way of supporting the wellbeing of both students and staff is by giving opportunities for meaning and purpose through working together as a community. A community that takes a whole university approach to addressing mental health, including financial concerns.

Watch the recording

If you have any questions or comments for Pete, you can get in touch with him directly on Twitter or via

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