Empower: Student voices on workplace wellbeing and rights 

Empower is a research project at Leeds Arts University that uses a “Students as Partners” approach to explore the experiences of creative arts students and graduates regarding workplace wellbeing and knowledge of their rights. 

Why this matters 

Universities have a responsibility to ensure graduates are prepared for the workforce. However, research suggests graduates struggle with workplace wellbeing, potentially hindering their careers. This is particularly concerning for the creative industries, known for precarious work and unpaid internships. Additionally, 26% of Leeds Arts University students have declared disabilities, highlighting the need for specific support. 

What we found 

The project revealed a mixed picture. Students reported positive experiences like supportive managers and flexible hours, especially in freelance settings. Larger businesses offered better mental health support compared to smaller ones. However, negatives included safety concerns, contract changes after work began, and lack of respect for availability. 

Graduate feedback included both positive and negative experiences. Positives involved freedom and autonomy in managing workload and mental health understanding. Negatives ranged from long hours and poor communication to dismissals related to disability or stress. 

Confidence and support 

Students generally felt confident navigating workplace rights (68%) and accessing support (50%). Graduates felt more prepared for the working world (61.7%) and raising concerns (58%). Interestingly, students felt more comfortable discussing wellbeing with managers (94%) and mental health (69%) compared to graduates (52.9% and 38% respectively). 

What students want 

Students requested support on various issues, including: 

  • Gender politics at work: knowing rights and how to address them 
  • Maintaining workplace wellbeing with disabilities or neurodiversity 
  • Interviewing with mental health challenges 

Additionally, students desired: 

  • Portable understanding of workplace wellbeing and rights 
  • Communication strategies for managing issues with colleagues and supervisors 
  • Cultivating positive workplace relationships

Delivery preferences included interactive, in-person sessions and safe community forums for discussion. 

Graduate needs 

Graduates requested resources like: 

  • Travel allowances and disability equipment
  • Mentorship programmes and extended breaks
  • Simple resources on workplace wellbeing and rights delivered via email
  • Workshops designed for neurodiverse individuals on navigating work life 
  • Information on employment, copyright, and contract law for freelancing
  • Strategies for accessing mental health support within organisations

The road ahead 

The project aims to disseminate research findings and a resource toolkit through various channels. This includes sharing the information with other universities and student organizations like NUS to benefit students across all institutions. The goal is to encourage other educational institutions to replicate this research and utilise the resources to empower students and graduates for positive workplace wellbeing and knowledge of their rights. 

With thanks to the University of Huddersfield and Leeds Arts University for supporting this project. 


Rosie Pollock, Careers Advice & Guidance Consultant, Leeds Arts University