World-first study tracked mental health and wellbeing in students and staff during COVID lockdowns

Findings from a unique longitudinal research study conducted throughout 2020 - Thrive@Home – are set to shape the University's wellbeing recovery efforts in 2021 and beyond. Thrive@Home has provided deep insights into the experiences, hopes and fears of Monash students and staff stuck at home during the pandemic, while capturing collective community shifts in feeling and sentiment as the State rode the bumps of COVID-19.

When COVID-19 first struck Victoria, very few could have predicted the scale and depth to which the community would be impacted by the pandemic. However, as case numbers grew, and restrictions were imposed, it became obvious that not only were Victorians at physical risk from the virus, but that there were also risks to the mental and emotional wellbeing of our community.

The Turner Institute took the initiative in establishing the Thrive@Home surveys early in the pandemic to understand its impact and identify areas of concern that required special intervention focus for both staff and students. It is the only study of its kind to have been conducted in the Southern Hemisphere.

A resilient student body

Students on lawnThrive@Home has so far checked in with the Monash student population at four different timepoints (May, July, August and October 2020). It covers areas such as mental health, finances, academic performance, living arrangements and emotional and physical wellbeing.

The results paint a picture of a resilient cohort, who have not been unaffected by the pandemic, but who have coped better than many would have anticipated. While students naturally appear uncertain about the future, there is a sense of optimism as the state moves into recovery. Some key findings included:

  • Across all 4 timepoints, students demonstrated low levels of wellbeing but mental health variables (stress, anxiety, depression and sleep) remained consistently elevated with no surge in scores as restrictions worsened.
  • Over time, students became more concerned with how Australia and the world will look after COVID-19.
  • Students continue to lean on friends and relatives for help ahead of professional mental health services.

Armed with these better-than-expected findings, Monash is now well positioned to develop and offer a proactive suite of responses and preventative initiatives. 2021 will see:

  • A new Monash staff and student taskforce to outline a roadmap to mental health and wellbeing recovery.
  • Increased promotion of services (both for wellbeing and academic support), with emphasis on those that are freely available and confidential (e.g. Monash Counselling/Monash Health services).
  • Development of resources to help educate students on how to talk about mental health and how to respond when friends or family express distress (e.g. Monash mental health first aid).
  • Novel, student co-designed digital technologies to maintain and protect wellbeing entering the Monash student ecosystem, led by the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health.

Importantly, Thrive@Home student surveys will continue in 2021-2023 to ‘check in’ with students, both new and continuing, as we move forward in a ‘COVID normal’.

Active bodies but tired minds

Results from the Thrive@Home staff survey conducted in September provided equally valuable observations. Over 2200 Monash staff told us their ongoing concerns about family, job security and disconnection from friends and colleagues while working from home and watching as the sector was overlooked for federal support.

We were the first in the world to take the psychological pulse of our staff and show why it is important. We heard about the difficulty of juggling work and care and saw below average mental wellbeing and cognitive health. Yet, much like our findings in Monash students, there were positives to be found. Although tired in mind, staff were reportedly prioritising their bodies, with sleep quality and exercise frequency at extremely healthy and impressive levels. We found that staff who exercised at night, within an hour of going to bed, were part of the few experiencing significantly higher well-being.

Again, these findings have implications for how we as a University respond to the pandemic and seek to establish a new normal for staff. Clearly, peer to peer connection and cognitive health are two areas requiring special attention to maintain and protect staff wellbeing. Like the student surveys, staff surveys will continue through 2021 and beyond to capture what impact our new initiatives will have.

Looking ahead

Australian universities have no choice but to place student and staff wellbeing at the centre of everything they do post-COVID-19. I’m proud to say the Turner Institute is ahead of the curve here and look forward to sharing with you future insights and success stories as we continually innovate in this vital, and too often overlooked, area.

Read more about the Thrive@Home study: