Skip to Content

An Opportunity to Explore Well-being

Back to News Listing


Kateri McRae, PhD

4D Faculty Fellow of Well-being & Professor of Psychology

Sabbatical is a Unique Chance to Take a Closer Look at Well-being Among Students and Faculty

Feature  •

Views and statements from the author do not necessarily reflect official positions of the University of Denver.

At the University of Denver, and other institutions, one benefit offered to full-time faculty is a sabbatical leave: many faculty qualify for a temporary shift in their workload every six years. This involves a short-term elimination of teaching and service responsibilities, with the hopes of less interrupted time to complete research projects and gain perspective that might (re)shape the trajectory of their academic career. The idea is that teaching and service responsibilities are often deadline-driven, concrete, and urgent, so a sabbatical leave can clear off overflowing to-do lists, leaving more room for big-picture ideating, writing, and collaboration.

As I prepared for my sabbatical leave this past fall, several faculty members and administrators (at DU and elsewhere) confided in me that they had never taken a sabbatical leave (even though they qualified for them). This surprised me, because as a psychological scientist who studies emotion regulation and resilience, I can say that creating dedicated space for long-term thinking and planning is one direct support for well-being. Not taking a sabbatical seemed to me like having access to subsidized health insurance but choosing to pay full price instead. Therefore, I was resolved to make the most of my sabbatical.

As I embarked upon my sabbatical leave this autumn quarter, I had three goals: two research-related goals and one personal goal. The first research goal was to learn more about the current literature on college student well-being. My own research on emotions and emotion regulation has made me fairly fluent in the predictors of well-being more generally, but I was curious whether there are new or different predictors of well-being that could be found in the educational setting. The second research goal was to talk to researchers and leaders at different universities about student well-being efforts, especially focused on various ways that they collaborated with faculty to improve student-well-being. My personal goal was to engage in practices that support my own well-being, but I often de-prioritized because of my typical teaching and service obligations.

Goal 1: Understanding well-being in the student context

My own research has taught me that there are a generous handful of practices that reliably increase well-being. Most of them are not mysterious secrets that only a few people know. They include factors that contribute to overall health, such as getting enough regular sleep, having an enjoyable way to move your body that gets your heart pumping, having satisfying social relationships, and avoiding using drugs and alcohol in excess. Psychologically, the types of things that predict well-being are pursuing meaningful goals, engaging in mindfulness practices, cultivating gratitude, believing you can grow and change and be successful at what you’re doing, and thinking of stressful things from new perspectives that make them less worrisome.

The literature on student well-being I explored during my sabbatical also focused on these predictors of well-being. Furthermore, many university-based interventions have tried to leverage the unique university environment to improve them by, for example, trying to provide ways for students to cultivate meaningful social relationships in classes, clubs, or dorms. However, I came across one study (Wang et al., 2021) that shifted the way I think about well-being in education by identifying three concrete paths to student-well-being. The researchers administered questionnaires to students and asked whether the three main components of self-determination are one pathway by which effective teaching improves student well-being. The three components of self-determination are autonomy (the degree to which we are able to exert influence in our own lives), competence (our beliefs that we are capable of success) and relatedness (how much we are interacting meaningfully with others).

Wang et al. (2021) collected data from over 500,000 students on five continents and in 70 separate societies. Results indicated that teachers significantly influence student well-being through all three of these paths. For example, students indicated that teachers increased students’ competence by making them feel confident in their ability to do well in a course, autonomy when teachers listened to the students’ input on how to do things, and relatedness when students felt the teachers understood them. The authors also reported that the self-determination mechanisms by which teaching improves well-being was true cross-culturally and held when controlling for important variables like student and school socioeconomic status. Because some well-being studies tend to center Western cultural values, and well-being is often associated with access to resources, I found it compelling and important that these three facets were broadly applicable.

This study really got my wheels turning about how faculty may feel lost as to how to improve students’ well-being. I was excited to think that framing our charge as increasing students’ sense of perceived autonomy, competence, and relatedness might allow us to think about how we can explicitly message our confidence in students’ performance in our classes (competence), provide opportunities to allow students to choose their own topics or formats for assignments (autonomy), or adjust our curricular and co-curricular offerings to encourage the formation of meaningful bonds between students, or between students and faculty (relatedness). Often, a simplifying lens, like these three pathways to well-being, can be an important jump-start that helps people see that they can enact change and achieve progress, even in something as big, messy, and important as student well-being.

Goal 2: Discovering models for faculty engagement in student well-being

On sabbatical leave, I also reached out to and spoke with nearly a dozen people at multiple universities in roles related to student well-being. There were many examples of faculty receiving support—such as departmental trainings—in how to be an empathetic listener to a student in crisis, a handbook on best practices supporting student well-being shared by the provost each year, and collaborations with the office of teaching and learning to highlight best practices in teaching that also support student well-being.

There were also several exciting examples of research collaborations between those administering well-being interventions and faculty researchers. For example, some faculty with decades of experience in developing clinical interventions designed data-backed short programs that were then offered campus-wide. The ongoing assessment of the quality of the program was collaborative, and equally valuable to the faculty member’s research and the university. Another university had a full-time research staff member who reported to the office of student success. They frequently collect data on student well-being to inform ongoing efforts to improve it. These surveys provided data-based temperature checks of student well-being as often as three times a year, which were shared in summary form with faculty and staff to understand how to better support students. Partnerships with researchers, who provide disciplinary expertise and the ability to evaluate student well-being, seems critical to a successful, well-integrated formulation of well-being on a college campus.

Goal 3:  Prioritizing my own well-being practices

While on sabbatical I took the rare drop in the number of meetings, classes, and deadlines as a sign to use my time in a way I never had before. At the recommendation of a friend, I purchased a 90-day intention journal, and attempted to begin every morning (I did over 90% of my days) by completing prompts such as “in this moment, I am grateful for” and “one thought, limiting belief, or habit I will let go of is” for 10-15 minutes (Joy, 2023). This allowed me to pause at the beginning of the day, before my mental to-do list began to scroll, to take inventory of how I was doing and what I wanted to identify as my intention for the day.

Knowing the importance of social interaction for well-being, I also prioritized connections with other people, trying to say, “Yes!” to nearly every invitation I got for a coffee or a lunch with my work friends, and taking an entire week to attend a wedding and then visit my aging parents out of state. Although the inspiration for this “Yes!” orientation was my release from teaching obligations, I realized that this socializing often led to conversations about the well-being research I was doing, or perspectives on student and faculty well-being more broadly. It also reminded me of one of my favorite perks of my job: that I genuinely enjoy and get along with my colleagues.

It is probably not surprising that these practices had a huge, positive impact on my mood. This increase in positive mood directly increased my levels of inspiration, motivation, and excitement about next steps in my career. As intended, I was able to think about the big picture, not only for my career trajectory but for how universities can support the well-being of students, faculty, and staff. Not everyone has the benefit of a formal sabbatical leave, but any scheduled, significant periods of time with reduced workload (paid holidays for staff, reading weeks for students) are one way to create time for people to engage in the practices that we already know improve well-being. Creating more meaningful breaks for busy people—and cultivating a culture in which people take them when they are available—is one huge structural change that could have a huge impact on well-being within higher education and beyond.


Joy, K. (2023) Focus pocus 90-day guided journal: Creative reflections for intention and mindfulness. Andrew McMeel Publishing.

Wang, Y., King, R. B., Wang, F., & Leung, S. O. (2021). Need-supportive teaching is positively associated with students' well-being: A cross-cultural study. Learning and Individual Differences, 92(102051), 1-12.