Lives on the rocks

October 3, 2003

Michelle Tytherleigh and Cary Cooper believe jobs in academia carry too high a personal price tag

Ivory towers, working hours to suit and long holidays are just a few of the benefits of an academic life, so the stereotype goes. However, the results of the annual work-life balance survey for The THES and lecturers' union Natfhe show that they certainly come at a price -academics suffer higher levels of stress than other professionals and the result is more serious professional errors, ill-health, increased alcohol consumption and no sex. Howard Kirk, RIP.

But although they contradict the popular screen image of academics - from Michael Caine's professor in Educating Rita to Antony Sher's portrayal of Kirk in The History Man - the findings are not surprising. Our recent nationwide survey of workplace stress in all categories of staff in higher education, funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, may not delve into employees' sexual and drinking habits, but it echoes most of Natfhe's findings.

The main problem is Britain's long-hours culture, which disproportionately impinges on higher education staff. Countless reports show how this affects every aspect of employees' lives. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development's 2001 report, for example, stated that more than half the partners of people who worked more than 48 hours a week admitted that work was damaging their sex lives. However, while they wished their partners could work shorter hours, they considered it a price worth paying to guarantee a decent standard of living.

The Natfhe study found that almost 66 per cent of education staff, compared with about half of the general workforce, reported working more than 40 hours a week. To add to that, the results of our study found that some 40 per cent of higher education academic and research staff reported working a minimum of 51 hours a week.

Employees are also not taking off all the time they are entitled to. For example, Natfhe reported that almost 25 per cent of education staff, compared with 15 per cent in general, never have time for a lunch break, and more than half fail to take all their annual leave entitlement. Our study found similar responses. In addition, 37 per cent of higher education academic and research staff who responded said they had either not taken sick leave and/or returned to work before they were well.

Compared with many other organisations, the academic environment is perceived to be family-friendly, with flexible working hours. However, it is apparent that work in academia doesn't stop when the office door is closed. Indeed, more than half of higher education academics worked at least 11 out-of-office hours a week. Moreover, men had the worst work-life imbalance and reported the highest levels of stress. Does this mean more "new" men are working in higher education compared with other occupations?

But why are their workloads so heavy and, more important, why do academics seem to put up with it? Part of the reason for greater workloads is more external scrutiny and accountability, alongside major funding cuts. Feelings of job insecurity may explain why they put up with the stress.

All higher education staff in our study, but particularly academics, reported job insecurity, linked to the abolition of tenure and more temporary and casual contracts, as their highest source of stress. They were more likely to cite higher levels than other occupational groups. This was despite the fact that 83 per cent of respondents had full-time permanent contracts.

There is more than enough evidence that stress in academia is rising faster than in other occupations and that it is having an impact on every aspect of life, from the lecture theatre to the bedroom. It might not make for a great film, but a 21st-century Howard Kirk might be less Don Juan and more done in, happier with a double scotch and an early night than an evening working his way through the student body.

Michelle Tytherleigh is research fellow for the occupational stress in higher education institutions study and is based at the University of Plymouth. Cary Cooper is BUPA professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

For more information on the ongoing stress in higher education study, see www.ihs.plymouth.ac.uk/~Estresshe

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