A report on a failure at Leeds to tackle academic work pressure is a warning to all institutions. Tony Tysome reports
Hopes have been raised that all universities will improve working conditions after the health and safety watchdog made clear that it is ready to take "enforcement action" against institutions that fail to tackle staff stress.
The Health and Safety Executive, in a report on Leeds University leaked to The Times Higher , warns that it is prepared to act against institutions that put academics under so much work pressure that legal health and safety duties are neglected.
The report follows an inspection carried out by HSE officials at the university last October. It concludes that Leeds "has not upheld its policy on stress at work, because it has failed in its general aims. It is not promoting a well-managed work environment; not protecting staff from undue stress; and not supporting staff in avoiding or managing stress."
The inspectors found that staff were largely happy with the hours they worked and felt adequately trained. But the HSE also found that work-related stress and staff support were poorly managed. About a third of staff sick leave was stress-related.
The inspectors heard that academics were under "significant pressure" to produce a high volume of published work, causing them to neglect their legal duties to protect the health and safety of other staff and students.
The report says: "This is not acceptable. It is foreseeable that the health and safety of staff and students may be jeopardised."
It concludes that work-related stress will continue to rise at Leeds unless the university identifies causes of staff frustration and finds solutions to them. It warns: "Where there is excessive pressure on academic staff, if this results in a failure to meet legal duties, this must receive urgent attention. If the HSE is on site for inspection and identifies a contravention of statutory legislation, enforcement action will follow."
Leeds University said it was working with the HSE and unions to tackle the issues raised. A working group has been set up to look at mental wellbeing at work, and regular surveys are being undertaken.
University and College Union leaders this week called on employers to take urgent action to alleviate work pressures on staff.
Roger Kline, UCU head of equality and employment rights, argued that a national template was needed for local workload agreements in the sector.
"It's not a case of the union telling people how many hours they should work, it's more a case of providing them with contractual protection," he said.
Sally Hunt, UCU joint general secretary, said employers needed to take on more staff to bring down student-to-staff ratios and to boost administrative support for academics. "It is fundamental to academics that they are self-directed. They are not going to ignore their responsibilities towards students just because they have contracted hours," she said.
The Universities and Colleges Employers Association said employers would be open to discussion about modernising workload agreements.