From education to employment

Emotional Contagion: A Route to Student Wellbeing?

Dr Dan Bishop is a Senior Lecturer at Brunel University London

As an academic in a UK Higher Education Institution, I have witnessed a sharp increase in the number of students suffering from stress, anxiety and depression.

This seems to reflect a wider national picture, in which diagnoses of mental health conditions such as depression are on the increase.

Most worryingly, the numbers of HE students committing suicide has recently exceeded that of the general population. Something needs to change, and fast.

However, it seems as though the writing is on the wall before university life begins. A 2016 survey by the Association of Colleges (AoC) showed that 85% of colleges surveyed had witnessed an increase in student disclosure of mental health issues in the preceding three years; 74% had referred students suffering with mental health issues to A&E services. And although nearly all colleges provided wellbeing education to their students, less than half were able to financially sustain a full-time counsellor or mental health professional on campus.

Now may be a good time for the Further Education sector to take stock of how it can manage the health and wellbeing of its students – and I would like to suggest that staff wellbeing is central to this.

One important way in which staff wellbeing may positively influence students’ wellbeing is via ‘emotional contagion’.

Emotional contagion is the phenomenon whereby an individual’s expression of their emotional state (e.g., smiling when happy) is instinctively mirrored by others – which often results in changes in their own emotional state.

This stems from our innate social nature and our tendency to mimic our fellow human beings – something that we do unconsciously.

So, when someone smiles at us, we tend to automatically smile back at them, regardless of how we are feeling at that precise moment – but, amazingly, changes in our facial expression have been shown to induce potentially beneficial changes in our emotional state and our physiology, including our heart rate and blood pressure.

Hence, there may be more than a smidgeon of truth to the time-honoured maxim that ‘happy staff = happy customers’: if members of FE staff are noticeably happier in their daily work lives, then there is an increased chance that their students will be happier – and healthier, as a result.

But how do we set about making ourselves happier, on a daily basis?

There are clearly a multitude of detailed answers to this question, but here are four potential quick wins:

  1. Although a consistently faked smile (i.e., putting your ‘game face’ on) is psychologically unhealthy, the occasional effort to make more frequent eye contact with colleagues and students, and to smile at them as we make our way across campus, could be a powerful mood booster – not least because of the reciprocal nature of this phenomenon.
  2. There is also good evidence that our posture strongly affects the way in which we feel, and our physiology: slumping makes us feel more negative and drained, whereas sitting upright makes us feel more positive and energetic; there are also immediate consequences for our heart rate and blood pressure. So the occasional ‘posture check’ when sitting at your desk could pay dividends when it comes to your wellbeing. We also tend to automatically imitate others who we deem to be role models. So, if you are a role model to your students (by choice or otherwise!), then their postures may also improve.
  3. Social support is consistently shown to be an important component of psychological resilience, happiness and wellbeing – so seek support, in its various guises. This can be emotional (something that we often seek from family members and close friends), instrumental (more likely to be something that we can ask of our colleagues, such as sharing of workload), or informational/appraisal-oriented (e.g., feedback obtained from line managers, formally or informally).
  4. Find authenticity. Think: what gives your life meaning? What makes you tick? This could be something as fundamental as ‘being kind to others’. If so, then ensure that it remains at the forefront of your personal agenda as often as possible each-and-every day.

While these may seem like very simple solutions, we should remind ourselves that the best solutions are often the simple ones: smile more, slump less, reach out for help – and be authentic.

You may just find that you reap the benefits of the ‘emotional contagion’ to your students.

Dr Dan Bishop is a Senior Lecturer at Brunel University London, a Health and Care Professions Council Registered Practitioner Psychologist, and Director of Swellbeing Ltd, a company that excels in helping others to excel.

Copyright © 2018 FE News

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