Half of UK academics ‘suffer stress-linked mental health problems’

Scholars at greater risk of stress-related illness than police, medics and local authority staff, research suggests

July 6, 2018
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About half of all UK academics have suffered depression, anxiety or other types of mental health problems related to stress – one of the highest rates of any sector, a conference has heard.

Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, told a forum on staff well-being in higher education at London Metropolitan University on 4 July that some 55 per cent of the 6,439 UK academics she had polled said they had experienced symptoms including depression, sleeping problems and cognitive impairment.

In comparison, only 23 per cent of NHS staff report similar difficulties, while the figures for local authority staff and police stood at 42 per cent and 47 per cent respectively, she said. Prison staff are, however, more likely to report stress-related symptoms, with 72 per cent doing so, according to Professor Kinman’s survey from 2016.

The growing need for academics to take on a variety of new tasks, including pastoral care, administration, entrepreneurial activity and “impact” work, is one of the most commonly cited causes of stress, said Professor Kinman, who described the trend as “role creep”.

“Variety is a really important part of job satisfaction for academics, but there is now strong potential for role overload and role ambiguity which can be unsettling,” Professor Kinman told delegates.

Many academics were also frustrated at having to complete what Professor Kinman called “illegitimate and unnecessary tasks”, with 50 per cent of academics she polled saying that they are often required to carry out tasks they deem “unreasonable”, while 50 per cent say they completed tasks that “made little sense”.

Professor Kinman also voiced disappointment that staff well-being had not been addressed in detail by Universities UK's Step Change programme, which was launched in September 2017 “embed good mental health across all university activities”, but focused on students, she said.

“Staff mental health should be a fundamental part of Step Change, not just an add-on, particularly as it is talking about a ‘whole university’ approach,” Professor Kinman told Times Higher Education.

“Of course, it’s important to look at student mental health but you cannot separate that from staff well-being – just as the NHS recognises staff well-being is vital for good patient care,” she added.

If staff felt under pressure, students would not receive the pastoral care they needed, added Professor Kinman. “Students notice these things and if they perceive staff are very busy, they tend not to ask for help,” she said.

The focus on staff mental health comes amid concerns over heavy workload levels in the sector and the suicide of Malcolm Anderson, an accounting lecturer at Cardiff University, in February. Last month a coroner heard that the 48-year-old father-of-three had complained on several occasions about his workload allocation, which required him to mark 418 exam papers in a 20-day period.

Cardiff University has said that it will review the support available to staff following the death of Dr Anderson.

Vida Douglas, lecturer in education at Brunel University London, told THE that while “many universities are taking staff well-being seriously...it is often just focused on levels of absenteeism, rather than different areas of occupational health”.

However, Ms Douglas welcomed UUK’s decision to review the Step Change framework to include a greater emphasis on staff well-being. “Given that it is guided by a focus on student mental health, it wasn’t surprising [that staff well-being was not a significant focus] but it is good they are planning to update the policy,” she added.

 jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

Someone needs to be held legally accountable for doing this to university academics. There will surely be a reckoning. Won't there?
It's very strange, isn't it? After all, academics spend their lives teaching and researching a subject they like. It seems likely something has gone very wrong in the admin side of things

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