The recognition that our organisations are living systems not machines

By Fabienne Vailes

To many of us who work in education, articles about our country being ‘in the grip of a mental health crisis’ won’t come as a surprise. The pandemic simply accentuated the patterns that were already there.

A crisis is ‘a time of intense difficulty or danger or a time when a difficult or important decision must be made.’ (Oxford Languages). What if 2022 is THE year to choose to improve wellbeing for all? 


As a linguist, I feel passionately about words, and I would like (if you allow me) to start with a definition of wellbeing so that we can all sing from the same song sheet. In their article, ‘The challenge of defining wellbeing, Dodge et al. (2012) explain how surprising it is that despite years of research, the focus has been on exploring the various dimensions of well-being but not on providing a clear definition. They define well-being as ‘the balance point between an individual’s resource pool and the challenges faced’. In short, when individuals have more challenges than resources, the see-saw dips, along with their wellbeing and vice-versa’. This provides us with a very clear and simple way of representing the loss of wellbeing and highlights the importance of wellbeing for students, staff, and society at large.

The loss of wellbeing and its associated risks of physical and mental illness, as well as productivity and performance issues in work, education and society need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.


In my role as French Language Director, I became very interested in how young people and staff flourish or languish in education and life. In the first edition of The Flourishing Student, like many, I looked mainly at the wellbeing of students because I considered them to be our end user, our key priority. I could see many were experiencing challenges and suffering and my aim was to provide tools for tutors to support their individual students.

Over the last 8 years, I have observed three waves of thinking about wellbeing. We started with the focus on our students. This was the first wave, and the second was to realise that we also need to focus on the staff so that we can promote student and staff and well-being. Interestingly, the current body of existing research has focused on measuring individual well-being in students and staff and always separately. Compared to student wellbeing, there is still very little research for HE staff wellbeing, particularly for professional staff (Shen & Slater, 2021). Overall, though more and more students and staff are reporting higher levels of mental illness, stress and burnout.

In response to the difficulties experienced by so many, Hughes and Spanner published in 2019 their University Mental Health Charter in collaboration with Student Minds. This introduced the third wave: our overall thinking is fast moving towards the whole system, towards considering our organisations as a system. This is referred to as a ‘whole-university approach’ which has been advocated by many organisations such as Universities UK.


As western societies and organisations we often hold a very Cartesian/Newtonian view of our world as machines. This means we treat our systems and organisations as an engine: to understand the whole we somehow try to take it apart, look at its smallest pieces, put them back together again; hoping it will work more efficiently or rev better. If we are honest, we also have a very symptom-based approach to addressing issues and we try to fix or deal with symptoms instead of looking at the bigger picture. The truth is that our organisations are not engines or machines. Tweaking parts in isolation (e.g., ad hoc or bolted on measures to improve the individual wellbeing of students or individual wellbeing of staff) is not going to work.

So, what can we do instead?

I believe that we need to:

  • step back and move beyond individual wellbeing to ask ourselves: ‘how can we create an environment (as a whole) that is supportive of well-being for EVERYONE in that environment?’
  • step away from the fixing and dealing with symptoms and take a bigger picture of things to understand the deeper issues in the system. What is creating all this?

Our organisations are living ecosystems made up by all of us. The system is US human beings. It’s ecological. We are connected to each other and influence each other (for better and for worse). Its basis is wholeness, interconnectedness, and interdependency.

We can use the example of our human body to illustrate this. It has individual cells and parts, each of which operates independently but are part of a slightly larger, bigger system. They all must work together and be both individual and systemic, I call this a subtle and delicate dance, for the individual to remain alive and healthy. There’s simply no other way for homeostasis to happen.

To create change, we will have to design out of an entirely different mindset, a new understanding of the world and of what’s possible inside of systems.

This can come from looking at what makes our communities thrive. It’s not about bolting on but about ‘weaving’ –weaving positive relationships, belonging, and respect.

Baik et al. advocate 5 essentials to well-being (2014): autonomous motivation, a sense of belonging, positive relationships, autonomy, and a sense of competence. They suggest that when these are achieved, they facilitate a sense of community well-being.

So, how do we create communities and organisations that truly empower all to flourish?

It starts with these wellbeing essentials being much more than values laminated on the walls of our organisations. They become values that are lived, breathed, and experienced throughout. When we change the way we operate at a values-based level, then everything else flows from there. We can start being very intentional asking ourselves what we are up to and what our purpose is.

We can start by having honest (and challenging) conversations about where we currently are and where we want to go next and how we build from what is already working well. I believe we are not doing enough talking. It is vital that all in education (students, parents, employers, staff) have a platform and are empowered to have discussions and conversations about systemic changes. This is what I am currently building in collaboration with other individuals and organisations.

If you are interested in finding more about how together we can create truly flourishing communities with well-being at its heart, which is truly embodied, then you may want to read the 2nd edition of The Flourishing Student. And don’t hesitate to get in touch to share your thoughts with me. I always love to connect with like-minded individuals. I look forward to meeting you. #Togetherwecanflourish

About the Author

Fabienne Vailes

An educational expert with almost 25 years of experience in the sector, Fabienne is on a mission to change the face of education, embedding wellbeing into the curriculum to create an environment where both students and staff flourish and develop the mental agility and resilience to succeed both academically and in the workplace. Fabienne is the author of The Flourishing Student: Every tutor’s guide to promoting mental health, well-being and resilience in higher education and co-author of How to Grow a Grown Up.

Fabienne is a well-being expert, an author, podcaster and speaker/trainer in education.

She is on a mission to empower all stakeholders in education to flourish, one conversation at a time. She has 25 years of experience in education as a language teacher and has taught at all levels (from nursery all the way to university, including Further Education and adult lifelong learning) which has given her a unique insight into our UK schooling system.


Image source: Pixabay

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