Changing the default setting of academic institutions to wellbeing

Kelly McShane
3 min readApr 2, 2022

Throughout my years teaching, I wrestled with how to remain a human while also doing what is required of my job. My solution has been to make decisions based on values. Articulating these values has, in fact, allowed me to consolidate what seemed like irreconcilable differences between my job and myself as a human. My work, and frankly my existence, is guided by compassion, integrity, growth and autonomy. As a professor, I explain to students that I balance integrity and compassion when making decisions regarding late assignments, missing exams, and other challenges to the academic evaluation process. I clearly state that being proactive is ideal, but I accept that one cannot always predict when their apartment will become infested with bed bugs and greatly disrupt their life as a student. True story.

Gorgeous foiliage (because who wants a picture of bedbugs)

I have embraced this approach in a context where many academics feel that we are in fact “codling students,” that we are in fact providing too many chances and giving in too much to student demands. This rhetoric suggests that we need to set firm deadlines because this will better prepare students for what will happen in the workforce. Many colleagues reflect on their time as undergraduate students and how “hard” they had it, and thus it seems only appropriate for the current students to have to experience (read endure) the same.

I struggle greatly with this position, as I fervently believe in evolution. I do not think that it’s best to simply do what was done before because… fill in the blank reason. I am convinced that we can do things differently and better than what has been done before. In fact, I believe it is our responsibility as educators to evolve in the face of growing evidence of the struggles and distress that students face. If we are to create systemic change to better support students in their post-secondary education, we must at a minimum offer compassion to guide our decisions. Doing so is a key step to ensuring that wellness is a criterion for organizational decision-making.

I will wait (impatiently for sure) until wellness permeates across all aspects of the academic institutions and organizations. In the meantime, I communicate to my students that wellness is a process I seek to support in their post-secondary education. I am committed to an academic experience for students where wellbeing is valued, recognized and supported. I deliberately and with careful intention create assignments on goal setting and work-life balance, equip students to identify challenges to their wellbeing, provide access resources to support maintain wellbeing, and talk about the balance between work and health.

Most institutions have policies and procedures to address specific situations and issues, ones that have typically worsened and/or require interventions. However, little attention is paid to the everyday situations, interactions, and conversations. We are missing a universal approach that focuses on wellness. Academic performance without careful consideration of wellness is not something I am willing to be complicit in.

My goal is to model what healthy, proactive leadership looks like: one where a universal approach to wellbeing is the default. My ambition is to support the next generation of employees and leaders who believe a wellness rhetoric is not enough. My hope is that students are then equipped to evolve systems to change the default setting to wellbeing through compassion and kindness.

I sincerely hope that we can collectively act to intentionally support wellbeing through kindness and compassion.

Seeing the trees and the forest

A shout-out to my fellow change makers in student mental health: Katey Park and Annabel Sibalis. A thanks to my likeminded colleagues, including: Karen Spalding, Janice Waddell, and Daphne Taras. And my gratitude to my students, past and present, who remind me that compassion is a building block for learning.



Kelly McShane

Organizational Psychologist + Consultant; Passionate about Change + Wellbeing in People + Systems