The UK is facing a mental health crisis. A problem that has long been coming was accelerated by the pandemic, and students were hit harder than most. But universities have an opportunity to fight back. An opportunity to support their students in meaningful ways, and to provide new services that reflect the reality of modern university life and its many challenges.

The Changing Role of Facilities Management

More than 60% of students say their wellbeing and mental health have worsened over the last year. Over a quarter said they feel lonely ‘often’ or ‘always’, compared to 8% in the wider adult population.

This Office for National Statistics research demonstrates why there is growing concern over mental health in universities, and why there are calls to do more to identify problems early.

Fortunately, higher education facilities management is evolving with the needs of students. The role and its responsibilities are in some ways almost unrecognisable compared to just a few short years ago.

It reflects a wider trend in facilities management, where wellbeing and social value has come to the fore. Managing buildings has become more about looking after the people who occupy them. Not just keeping the roof over their head, but making sure everything under that roof works to nourish and support them.

“Facilities management needs to move quickly to a more holistic offer that spans the crucial interactions between people and their buildings to ensure effectiveness, comfort, productivity, safety and health,” says Workplace Futures - an annual conference dedicated to understanding the changing role of Facilities management.

Those outcomes - comfort, productivity, health - are intrinsically linked. Businesses have come to realise that performance improvements come from first looking after health and wellbeing, and this is just as true for students.

If not more so.


A New Approach to Wellbeing in Universities


Through our partnership with Northumbria University, Sodexo has seen how academic and social success are more likely when students feel safe and supported.

It begins before they ever step foot on campus, with direct contact and practical advice on what to expect and the services that are on offer. For many who will be away from the support bubble of family and friends for the first time, this is invaluable.

In 2021, Sodexo and Northumbria University created NU Thinking - a programme aimed at improving both the physical and mental health of students.

Launched by Rugby World Cup winner and Sodexo ambassador Matt Dawson, the initiative is tailored to the specific needs of students and staff who have been referred through the university’s Counselling and Mental Health Support team. They receive a package of support that reflects the ‘whole wellbeing’ approach and includes access to personal training as well as nutritional advice sessions.

“The mental health needs of our students have been heightened, and we know that exercise can have a really positive impact on mental health. The NU Thinking project has created a fantastic opportunity.”

Rory Kavanagh, Vice President of Sport at Northumbria Students' Union


Case Study: Thriving under pressure with Northumbria University

Physical and mental health are central to a student’s ability to succeed. Sodexo is always on hand to provide practical advice and support.

Learn how Northumbria University and Sodexo supported students and staff.

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Thriving Under Pressure

Universities also support mental health in students through simpler initiatives like using Thrive - the only NHS-approved mental wellbeing app.

Introduced at Northumbria by Sodexo, it helps to monitor a user’s mood and recommends meditation or relaxation techniques to manage stress, anxiety and related conditions. 

The app proved particularly beneficial when the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 put extraordinary strain on both people and resources. YouthSight research early in the pandemic showed just half of students were satisfied with their lives, compared to 75% before it began.

And this made the introduction of Circles, Sodexo’s digital concierge service, in September 2020 even more timely.


Download our case study to learn more about our work at Northumbria University.



“Sodexo has been fundamental in supporting the most vulnerable students. We prioritise the health, wellbeing and safety of our students, and it's great to see that Sodexo shares those values.”

Sue Broadbent, Assistant Director, Student Support & Wellbeing, Northumbria University


Students now have access to a 24-hour support service that’s designed to take on the burden of everyday life admin, freeing them up to focus on studies and the other things that matter most to them.

Circles concierges make travel arrangements, order grocery shopping and arrange gifts for friends and family - whatever a particular student needs. What was already a groundbreaking service went even further in lockdown, when Sodexo partnered with Morrison’s to make sure fresh, quality food was delivered to Northumbria students (both on campus and off) at a time when many were unable to leave their homes. Delivery slots were extremely hard to come by, but organising and ordering at scale meant we could ensure continuity.

All of these measures reflect a genuine commitment to protecting and enhancing mental and physical wellbeing. There is no simple solution to the mental health crisis, but universities can play a critical role by creating supportive environments that allow every student to thrive. 

Learn more about how we work with Universities clients.

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September 23, 2021

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