Category Archives: workloads

Keeping a lid on the pressure: universities and mental health

It has been almost a year since HEPI published the first Pressure Vessels report on the epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff. Last week saw the publication of an update co-authored by Nicky Priaulx of Cardiff University and me: Pressure Vessels II.

The update was written partially to address criticisms of the first report levelled by some vice chancellors: the data was too old, lessons have been learned, mental health is our priority etc. But the updated report tells its own story. With the last two years of data analysed, there has been a continued rise in the numbers of referrals to occupational health (19%) and counselling services (16%). Scroll down to the press release for more headlines.

The response to Pressure Vessels II from Universities UK gave me a sense of déjà vu and so I compared it with last year’s quote in the Times Higher – it was word for word the same:

In a statement Universities UK said “the health, wellbeing and safety of all staff and all students is a priority for universities.

The response from UCEA was baffling to say the least:

Raj Jethwa, CEO of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said the report could have viewed year-on-year increases in mental health referrals “as a positive improvement to staff well-being in the HE sector.”

In what world is an increase in mental health referrals a positive reflection on the sector’s response to the mental health crisis? When we remember that it is the employers’ responsibility to PREVENT stress, you wonder why they have not moved to follow some of the recommendations I made last year. Their response prompted me to tweet:

And here’s UCEA, channelling Captain Schettino of the Costa Concordia, vaingloriously sailing his liner towards the rocks, abandoning crew members as it sinks.

There are a number of unanswered questions looming as universities face the future post-Covid 19. How will staff be protected from excessive workloads arising from redundancies, resignations that will not be replaced, and an unwillingness to continue to employ hourly-paid staff or graduate teaching assistants? Universities are even now cancelling sabbaticals and cutting academics’ time for research – but will the same expectations to produce world-leading REF 3* and 4* research outputs still apply? And what about student satisfaction as courses move online – will academics still be held accountable for that? These are all serious stressors in the life of academics at the moment before we have even taken account of sickness, grief and changes to financial circumstances being confronted by many in universities.

Most people who read this blog are aware of why the staff experience in universities and the mental health crisis are important to me, but let me give some context.

Just a few days previously, I published this piece on the CDBU website (and also on this blog). Here’s the connection to the Pressure Vessels reports. The CDBU blog piece ‘Don’t frighten the students’ was my account of the events that led to my resignation from my academic post in 2016. It places my concern with universities and mental health as the motivating force behind the work that has kept me busy with speaking and writing for the four years since I left. I felt I owed it to the injured colleagues I had met at various UK and international universities, and those whose blogs and tweets I had read, to keep raising the issue. I think the evidence speaks for itself – it is, after all, based on the universities’ own figures for mental health referrals.

When managers questioned my right to publish on this issue, their immediate concern was to silence a voice they considered impertinent. Rather like Matt Hancock, they didn’t like my tone.

It might have played out very differently. An enlightened manager could have suggested, as Nick Hillman, director of HEPI, did, that I pursue a rigorous and fact-based study of the issue. University managers, though, are less interested in hearing challenging views on issues they consider inconvenient. My experience reminded me of a story told by fellow blogger, Plashingvole, about the time he was interviewed for a management job. He was asked what he would do with dissenters. ‘Encourage them’ was his reply. He didn’t get the job. But questioning, challenge and refusal are all essential if universities are to nurture the critical thinking that drives real progress. It has amused me to speculate that these two reports for HEPI might have formed the basis for quite a creditable REF impact case study. No skin off my nose, because, as I am fond of saying, I have been able to get so much more real work done when I’m not having to justify it to management or the machinery of academic audit.

When Pressure Vessels came out in May 2019, I still did want to take one last swipe at the forces of institutional repression. I sent ‘personalised’ copies of the report to two of the managers who presided over my process for gross misconduct. The inscription read:

For X – witnessing your creative approach to the disciplinary process at Z University inspired me to campaign for compassion and kindness in university management. Your actions have led me to publish with a well-regarded organization which has amplified my voice. I will always be grateful.

Subtle. And true. Without them, these reports probably wouldn’t have been written.

This press release first appeared on the HEPI website on 30th April, 2020. https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2020/04/30/pressure-vessels-ii-an-update-on-mental-health-among-higher-education-staff-in-the-uk/

Pressure Vessels II: An update on mental health among higher education staff in the UK (HEPI Policy Note 23) by Dr Liz Morrish, a Visiting Fellow at York St John University, and Professor Nicky Priaulx, a Professor of Law at Cardiff University, reveals figures obtained via Freedom of Information requests on demand for counselling and occupational health services.

  • From 2016 to 2018, there was an increase of 16% in counselling at the 14 universities for which comparable time series data were obtained.
  • Over the same period of time, there was a rise of 19% in occupational health referrals at the 16 universities for which comparable time series data were obtained.
  • From 2009/10 to the end of 2017/18, at those five universities reporting complete data, there was a rise of 172% in staff access to counselling.
  • At all 17 universities covered in the report, there has been a rise in staff access to counselling of 155% in recent years.
  • At the 10 universities with data for 2009 to 2018, occupational health referrals rose by 170%.
  • For counselling and occupational health, the figures reflect gender differentiation, with women more highly represented.
  • There is also a pattern corresponding to contract type: for occupational health data, the largest proportion of individuals being referred is non-academic staff.
  • While greater use of support services may sometimes reflect improved access, the analysis may also support previous claims about the declining mental health of university staff.

The report builds on HEPI’s earlier ground-breaking work on this issue, published in May 2019 as Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff.

Dr Liz Morrish, the co-author of the report, said:

‘The first Pressure Vessels report was well received by staff who work in higher education. However, some managers and executives appeared unwilling to accept the findings of year-on-year increases in mental health problems. We hope this updated report will confirm our case beyond argument. The current sample of institutions has identified increases in referrals to occupational health and counselling as high as 500% since 2010.

‘We have also looked at the effect of this climate of workplace stress on staff retention. As we look forward to a future after the COVID19 pandemic, higher education staff and managers would be unwise to disregard the additional pressures this will bring. Like the virus, workplace stress is here to stay and must be addressed.’

Nick Hillman, the Director of HEPI, said:

‘After the current Covid-19 crisis is over, universities are going to have to pick up the pieces. There will be new challenges in recruiting and keeping students, in managing finances and in delivering research. It is vital that the wellbeing of staff is always considered as these changes occur.

‘The future success of UK universities mustn’t come at the cost of individuals’ lives. We need to build a virtuous circle by delivering supportive environments that strengthen institutions because they work well for all staff and students, rather than a vicious circle where institutions may succeed in the short term but people’s wellbeing is harmed.’

 

PDR in the Disneyfied university

There was a story recently about George Washington University, Washington, DC, and its requirement for senior staff to attend sessions in corporate culture provided at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, by the Disney Institute, the specialist leadership consultancy arm of the Disney corporation. Apparently, the Disney consultants had told managers that there was an absence of culture at the university.

I doubt they found an absence of culture at GWU, rather, the management consultants were keen to promote a change of culture. Academics, of course, have plenty of culture, from a regard for aesthetics, ethics and a common respect for academic values like the pursuit of truth, knowledge and academic freedom. But what they don’t appreciate in large measure is corporate culture. This will need to be imposed. GWU should have forsaken Mickey Mouse in Florida and instead crossed the Atlantic to embrace the full Cruella de Vil experience in the management suites of British universities. Here they could have learned from 30 years of colonizing UK academics within the corporate enclosure.

At GWU, faculty were encouraged to attend the training event. In the UK, participation in corporate culture is inescapable. One prerequisite, of course, is to accept that the university is a corporation. Among managers and human resources, you rarely find the word ‘university’ uttered; for them, it is a ‘business’. The second stage of the project is to engineer the forcible citation of corporate discourse by academics in order to enforce compliance and banish autonomous academic identities. Just as in a Disney film, resemblance to reality is not a requirement.

I offer one example from around 2014. Along with other professors, readers and principal lecturers, I was asked to act as appraiser to more junior colleagues. It didn’t seem to matter that none of us had line management responsibilities nor any ability to affect the opportunities for advancement of those colleagues.

My investiture into the managerial tier took place via a day’s training event entitled ‘Personal Development Review (PDR) Training for Managers’, led by members of the staff development section. The obvious contradiction, that none of the trainees was actually a manager, was pointed out by a colleague. This apparent disqualification was ignored by the facilitators, but it was just the first of the fictions we were invited to inhabit as the internal coherence of the management’s imaginary world dissembled under the force of our critique.

Cascading of the Strategic Plan

It turned out I had a bit of a head start on my fellow learners as my research interest was in university managerial discourse and particularly strategic plans. I had collected and absorbed most of them for the book I was co-authoring, Academic Irregularities. According to the university’s policy, the rationale of PDR was to make sure that all employees’ objectives were in alignment with the university’s strategic plan, and that, consequently, those strategic priorities should cascade down into the objectives delivered by schools, teams and individuals. However, when I asked the other participants, the trainers themselves, the head of department and the dean who were observing the training, if any of them could outline the priorities of the current strategic plan, none could. It looked as if, even at the outset, the system was doomed to fail on fundamental principles.

Not a good start, you’d think. But even this slam dunk was waved away as inadmissible by the trainers and managers even as the participants questioned the scheme’s viability. At this point I read from the policy document which warned, ‘PDR which is ineffective will lack credibility and is damaging to the institution’. Then we were really off to the races.

Imaginary ‘teams’

Next to receive scrutiny were the assumptions around ‘teams,’ an organizing unit preferred by the university over traditional departments. As academics, we saw teams as administrative units but, in all other ways, they were considered superfluous to the ways we conducted our work. They were often comprised of people who were not actually working together in terms of teaching or research. So, to a large extent, the ostensive teams of the school were managerial fictions, and it was hard to see how these imaginary units could have objectives. There were other teams, however, which had formed organically in pursuit of teaching or research collaboration, often organised across disciplines, institutions and even international boundaries. How could our contribution to these endeavours be evaluated, we asked?

SMART objectives

When conducting a PDR, we were told, we should set objectives for our appraisees which were SMART. The first four occupied us for quite some time: Specific, Measurable, Achievable/ Realistic. All were problematic.

Specific – Imagine, I volunteered, your appraisee pledges to write a book which subsequently turns into a series of articles, or vice versa. Or, I may promise to work on diversifying assessment methods, and then the next curriculum review reverses that policy and instead requires a focus on fewer methods (this had happened). Will we be judged to have failed? The very nature of academic work accentuates the unplanned, the unanticipated, the unknown. Requiring specifics ensures that the process becomes an exercise in offering up the tokenistic, already-completed specific task, and is hardly a forcing ground for ‘stretching’.

Measurable – Quantitative or qualitative? If the latter, what methods of evaluation are used? How can we measure work which may extend outside of the university? Even if the measures are quantitative, we all know that the criteria for performance shift frequently: publications: quality, impact, citations; grant capture; external recognition. Trying to keep up with vacillating parameters of academic performance measurement is rather like trying to apprehend a desert mirage. The trainers brightened at the prospect of being able to offer a solution, and we were directed to the university’s Competency Framework. Competencies are described as “a set of behaviour patterns or characteristics which distinguish high performers from average or poor performers in a given role”. I pointed out that this offered little delicacy of scale for distinguishing between levels. The academic role requires a range of disparate competencies: teaching, research, social acumen, leadership, administrative efficiency, pastoral caring, knowledge of the university, careers guidance, fundraising, to name just a few ‘key skills.’ Who is to say my hard-won certificate in Gold Standard Customer Service should be eclipsed by the publication of a prize-winning monograph?

Achievable/Realistic ­– The university had been an early adopter of workload models and we were still being persuaded of their infallibility. It was already apparent that the model underestimated the hours for every single category of the academic workload, and so inevitably provided a poor basis for realistic objective setting or evaluation. When asked to give an example of a SMART objective for an L/SL under my line management, I offered the task of fitting in all your meetings, report writing, emails, exam boards, open days, curriculum development and PDR within the allocation for academic management and administration, for which a token 40 hours were allocated, up to a maximum of 175 hours. The rather flushed facilitator expressed concern that this was probably not an achievable objective. I responded that such a model was going to result in very exhausted, disenchanted, brittle and demotivated lecturers who are unlikely to convey a sense of purposeful aspiration to a PDR reviewee. When there is a dysfunctional workload model which has unattainable objectives sutured into its design, the only thing ‘stretched’ will be their goodwill and mental health.

Personal reflection

At the end of the session, I and several others had reached the conclusion that this PDR model would continue to fail. It was designed to addresses concerns held two decades ago about lack of accountability in universities which have been addressed by the proliferation of tools for monitoring the performance of academics: the National Student Survey, module evaluations, the Research Excellence Framework, internal and external quality audits, and even the hourly ‘tenko’ imposed by the estates office. It was both redundant and ridiculous. It did not meet academics’ realities nor their desires for development opportunities: time to research and develop teaching and opportunities for collaboration and networking.

The training protocol required that the trainee engage with a process of post-event reflection. This I dutifully did, sharing the account above with my manager, staff development and human resources in the hope of promoting dialogue, as requested. There were complaints from the staff development facilitators to my head of department. I had prepared for and fully engaged with the session, but my real crime was that I had exposed the pretence and corporate posturing of the neoliberal university-as-business. I had refused to assimilate to the managerial culture and this was seen as insubordination.

I’m not, generally, opposed to performance review. I have blogged previously about performance monitoring systems hereand here. But at a bare minimum it needs to be developmental, rather than judgmental, and it needs to reflect the experiences and values which obtain in academic workplaces. If it doesn’t, then we might as well all take off for our seminar in Disneyland….or maybe that should be Banksy’s Dismaland. http://dismaland.co.uk/

 

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.