Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff

This blog originally appeared on the HEPI website: and accompanies HEPI Occasional Paper 20. I am grateful to HEPI and its director, Nick Hillman, for the opportunity to produce this report.

There has recently been a significant amount of media concern surrounding the poor mental health of academics. See also.

In February 2018, Paul Gorczynski of the University of Portsmouth claimed that more academics and students have mental health problems than ever before, with findings that 43% of academic staff exhibited symptoms of at least a mild mental disorder. This is nearly twice the prevalence of mental disorders in the general population.

The degree of overwork is confirmed by a work-life balance survey published by Times Higher Education, as is the extent to which this damages mental health. Students also recognize that being taught by exhausted and depressed staff impairs their experience of university courses.

A report from Nottingham Trent University UCU confirms that workloads, for many academics, have become unmanageable. In the NTU UCU survey, the majority of staff surveyed reported working at least one unpaid half day at weekends, with 18% working a whole day. 41% felt that their workload had had a negative effect on their mental health. In fact only 6% said that their workload did not impair their mental health. Typical symptoms included disrupted sleep, depression and cognitive impairment.

Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff, is an Occasional Paper which sets out the scale of the problem based on a Freedom of Information survey showing a rising rate of staff referrals to counselling and occupational health in universities. The report also examines the factors which academics have identified as key causes of stress.

New workload models are at the top of the list, especially those which do not reflect the actual time necessary for completion of a task. Typically, for teaching assignments, one classroom hour will be accompanied by an additional 1.6 or 1.7 academic related hours on the annual workload. Lecturers are now required to provide teaching materials across several platforms. Each lecture will now need a Powerpoint, or similar, presentation, associated handouts and, perhaps, an interactive study guide. The lecture video will require editing and uploading. Student email enquiries will need responses. You will need to supply marking criteria which reflect your assessed learning outcomes. For all assessed tasks, you must upload an exemplar response, with commentary. All of these will, of course, need to be redone if you make any changes at all. And, since about 50% of lecturers are on precarious or casual visiting contracts, more of them will be writing those lectures for the first time. Technology may have transformed academics’ ways of working but has not necessarily lightened their load. Nevertheless, academics are often obliged to collude in the fiction that all of this, together with marking an entire cohort’s assessments, can be discharged in 1.7 hours. No wonder academics are stressed.

Many people outside academia imagine it is a life of contemplation and long summer holidays. In fact, few academics are able to take all of their annual leave allowance, and the NTU UCU study shows that 30% of academics worked on at least 10 days during their annual leave. The Times Higher Education 2018 work-life balance survey quoted one academic “We are not allowed to book holidays during term time, but we are also not allowed to book holidays over exam periods, marking periods, internal exam board meetings or course development meetings. This means that although we get 35 days [of holiday] a year, we actually only have opportunity to use about 14.” Senior members of staff find that non-teaching weeks during the summer are now taken up with reading and assessing the research outputs of their department colleagues for submission to the Research Excellence Framework audit. Junior academics are asked to staff weekend open days for potential applicants to undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. And let’s consider as well that the majority of academics will be under pressure to produce published research at high quality and volume. The extent of this work, too, fails to be reflected in staff workloads. Responsibilities like editing academic journals, peer reviewing articles and book manuscripts, examining theses, giving expert testimony – many of these are unforeseen at the start of any academic year and therefore mount up, but remain invisible to the human resources manager.

Academics are also evaluated by an assortment of research metrics: citation counts, the impact factor of the journal in which it is published, and the amount of research grant money obtained. These are all poor proxy measures of research quality, but they are easy to track. Despite their obvious limitations, academics are forced to accept that metrics have become the currency of performance management in universities. To work there means giving yourself over to forensic surveillance, and also being willing to have your closest friends and colleagues scrutinize your work, in both teaching and research. That pressure is cumulative and to many, the university has become an ‘anxiety machine’.

As one academic on Twitter out it, academics have been “forced by management into stress positions”. There have, to date, been two deaths by suicide linked to conditions of work at UK universities. Cardiff University lecturer, Malcolm Anderson, took his life on campus when, after years of appeals to his manager, his workload had escalated out of control. Another death by suicide was triggered by pressures to meet targets for research funding. Professor Stefan Grimm at Imperial College, London, had been rebuked by his manager over this issue.

I am honoured that Professor Mike Thomas, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, has written a foreword. He has conducted research into the area of compassion and kindness in leadership. Universities need to adopt these values because no profession can continue to drive its employees to burnout and alienate its pool of graduate recruits. There are remedies: sustainable career pathways, more autonomy and control over workload and responsible use of metrics. But beyond this, the simple, humane values of kindness and care for each other must be recovered if we are to ameliorate the toxic university.

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