Academics ‘face higher mental health risk’ than other professions

Lack of job security, limited support from management and weight of work-related demands on time among risk factors

August 22, 2017
Academic with his heads in his hands
Source: Rex

The majority of people working at universities find their job stressful, and academics are more prone to developing common mental health disorders than those working in other professions, according to a systematic review of published work on researchers' well-being.

A lack of job security, limited support from management and the weight of work-related demands on their time were among the factors listed as affecting the health of those who work in higher education.

The report, commissioned by the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust, urges institutions to work more closely with the UK’s regulator on health and safety in the workplace to address the risks to staff well-being.

For the study, research institute RAND Europe conducted a literature review to find out what is known about mental health in researchers, and identified 48 studies, which it analysed for the report entitled Understanding Mental Health in the Research Environment.

“Survey data indicate that the majority of university staff find their job stressful. Levels of burnout appear higher among university staff than in general working populations and are comparable to ‘high-risk’ groups such as healthcare workers,” write Susan Guthrie, a research leader at RAND, and colleagues in the report.

About 37 per cent of academics have common mental health disorders, which is a high level compared with other occupational groups. More than 40 per cent of postgraduate students report depression symptoms, emotional or stress-related problems or high levels of stress, they say.

“In large-scale surveys, UK higher education staff have reported worse well-being than staff in other types of employment in the areas of  work demands, change management, support provided by managers and clarity about one’s role,” the report says.

Real and perceived job insecurity is an important issue for researchers, particularly those at the start of their careers who are often employed on a series of short-term contracts, the report adds.

Dr Guthrie and colleagues found that staff who devoted a lot of their working time to research experienced less stress than those who did not. But it was not clear whether this reduction in stress was related to the seniority of scientists who are able to spend time more on their research.

Among the report’s conclusions is a call for universities to work with the Health and Safety Executive to help address workplace stress. The organisation has issued management standards that describe how workplaces can identify and mitigate stress at an organisational level, they say.

“It could be useful to work through that approach with a university or a research organisation to identify the mechanisms at play in those environments. Doing so could establish the relevance of the approach in this context, and potentially provide a model that could be used more widely in the sector,” they add.

holly.else@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (4)

I applaud the report urging universities to work with the Health and Safety Executive to address the epidemic of poor mental health among academic staff. In universities where there are high rates of burnout, managers are well aware of the stress that their unrealistic expectations place on staff, and these constitute a deliberate but ineffective strategy for ‘improving performance’. Academics are routinely scheduled for full teaching loads with large classes and multiple assessment points, regardless of other commitments to research or scholarship such as journal editing. There are also teaching-related and administrative tasks, and rather than seeking to mitigate these, managers instead prefer to cut the hours allocated for their completion, even as these proliferate. Academics have contracts which specify maximum workloads, but this can be easily circumvented. One colleague of mine reports that they were allocated just 30 hours to write a book, as the only way to fit in all their assigned tasks into their workload. Add to this unrelenting pressure to ‘perform’ in management-defined ways, such as ‘capturing’ research grants with a success rate of perhaps 12-30%, ‘improve’ teaching and NSS scores, produce 3* or 4* ‘outputs’ and an impact case study for the Research Excellence Framework, and you begin to see how stress can become overwhelming. It is not enough to specialize in just two or three of these areas, success in all categories must be demonstrated at each appraisal. The causes of unacceptable stress are no mystery and enough people have tried to point them out. I was among those who raised a voice in my own blog and the pages of the Times Higher. I was subjected to disciplinary procedures as a result, despite having my own diagnosis of work-related stress. I have since chosen to leave academia, and have quickly recovered my health. Liz Morrish Nottingham https://academicirregularities.wordpress.com
Liz is right, excessive workloads are a major cause of the increasing incidences of mental health conditions amongst academics. The rise in stress related sickness, including physical ill health is also alarming. In many universities workloads are so heavy that academics cannot take leave, in the worst cases for years. To many good people are leaving the profession for the sake of their health. It's a damning indictment of the sector.
Liz is right, excessive workloads are a major cause of the increasing incidences of mental health conditions amongst academics. The rise in stress related sickness, including physical ill health is also alarming. In many universities workloads are so heavy that academics cannot take leave, in the worst cases for years. To many good people are leaving the profession for the sake of their health. It's a damning indictment of the sector.
Unfortunately, the Health and Safety Executive is an increasingly toothless tiger, having been subjected to huge budget and staff cuts under the coalition and Tory governments. Many physical industries can now expect to go for many years without a workplace inspection from the HSE. At this year's Hazards conference for union safety reps, an HSE worker (and Prospect rep), Neil Hope-Collins, said that "Working in the HSE is getting harder and harder. You have a workload that makes you sick". Irony, much? Stress is an even tougher nut to crack from an enforcement point of view, because of the difficulty of establishing a definitive causal link between an individual's poor health and undue workplace "pressure" (though not impossible in certain cases). For anyone who wants to remain in higher education and improve conditions there, I recommend joining UCU and - ideally - getting actively involved, and encouraging others to do so too. Historically, it is unions that have fought for, and achieved, better terms and conditions, but a decent strength of membership is essential. HE staff can't rely on someone else to sort out their problems for them. As Liz Morrish indicates, there is life outside of HE too. As someone made redundant last year, I am now working as a senior analyst at the Rail Safety and Standards Board, where I find my working day - despite its own pressures - positive and fulfilling. I have, of course, joined the union. David Hardman Former Secretary of UCU London Region and former Branch Secretary at London Met Uni.

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