Appoint pro vice-chancellors for staff well-being, sector told

Leading psychologist issues stinging criticism of university treatment of employee mental health

November 20, 2020
Mental health
Source: iStock

Universities should appoint pro vice-chancellors whose sole focus is addressing staff mental well-being, a conference has heard.

Speaking at a Universities UK conference focused on Covid-19 and mental health in higher education, Cary Cooper, 50th anniversary professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester, said that universities “should have a pro vice-chancellor that looks at health and well-being, full stop”.

“The university sector is behind in this area. Yes, we have counselling services; yes, we have well-being champions; yes, we do well-being days; what they [universities] are not doing is making it a strategic issue,” he said.

Companies had already cottoned on to the fact that they needed to make mental well-being a priority, but the higher education sector was around five years behind, Sir Cary said. Since it became clear that mental health at work had become a massive problem, “universities have not tackled it in the way they should”.

“We have enough research in the HE sector to know the factors that are causing the problems”, but the problem of mental health has not got better; in fact, with the increase in the use of email, it has become worse, he said.

A priority should be appointing qualified line managers, he said. In higher education, heads of academic departments are not appointed for their emotional intelligence, but whether it is their turn, he claimed.

“They aren’t properly trained…we don’t have enough people in line management roles, shop to top floor, who have enough emotional intelligence and social skills. Until we tackle that and think through who we appoint in managerial roles and ensure their people skills have parity with their technical skills, we will be in trouble,” Sir Cary said.

Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, agreed that managerial appointments needed to improve.

“The good news is that there is a group of v-cs who are beginning to get this at a strategic level,” he said. However, it is a “very dim light because we need every vice-chancellor to be on this page…We have got to take notice of and drive it in the same way as we drive all our other priorities.

“Otherwise, we will probably fail as institutions, but ultimately we will fail people, and that will be the worst thing.”

The problem of staff mental health had been made even more acute by the coronavirus pandemic, according to Andrew Berrie, head of workplace well-being programmes (delivery) at mental health charity Mind.

He said that from conversations with universities who work with Mind alongside more general contact and consultancy across the sector during the past six months, the charity had noticed key problems within the sector.

Many members of staff, both academic and support-focused, were reporting increased workload, particularly from redesigning courses for online delivery, alongside a lack of downtime.

A lot of this increase came over the summer, as staff prepared for the current term, meaning that they could not relax as they might have done or give their research the attention it needed.

It also had become clear that staff were over-extending themselves with longer virtual office hours and felt socially disconnected from colleagues, and many were anxious about returning to campus, Mr Berrie said.

He agreed that improving line management was a priority, particularly around timely and clear communications.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

new
It is the HE system in the UK in its entirety and its many misguided - sometimes outright perverse – incentives and the taken-for-granted assumptions of what academia ought to be like that make people sick (mentally and physically). No number of “initiatives”, “action plans”, “support infrastructure”, “management training” and other performative and administrative nonsense, or indeed another cushy senior management post, will fix that. The well-being and also resilience agenda are simply a distraction from the ugly truth that no-one is prepared to face and address it seems. Worse, it shifts the responsibility and often blame onto the individual (manager and staff alike). Stop papering over the cracks.

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