The shocking extent of how far universities fall below the benchmarks set by the Health and Safety Executive on acceptable levels of stress in the workplace is revealed by new research.
Stress expert Gail Kinman told The Times Higher that the HSE expects at least 85 per cent of a workforce to report that they "can cope with the demands" of their jobs, but her research found that only 38 per cent of university staff say they can. The results show that more than half are unable to cope with their workload.
She said the university sector fell short of the HSE's demands in key areas, suggesting that legal action against a university in the near future was highly likely.
"The figures are worrying," said Dr Kinman, of Luton University.
"The HSE has a lot of legal power and is making work-related stress a priority area. Its benchmarks... will make it easier to enforce stress-related health and safety offences.
"It seems only a matter of time before we see the first university prosecuted over stress levels."
Dr Kinman's figures are extrapolated from her six-year stress study for the Association of University Teachers. The study, which culminated in the report Working to the Limit , published at the end of last year, found that as well as underperforming on manageable workload, universities were lacking in other areas.
The HSE expects 85 per cent of staff to report that they "have an adequate say" over how they do their work, but only 75 per cent of university staff believe they do.
While the HSE expects that 85 per cent of staff should be happy that they get "adequate support from colleagues and superiors", Dr Kinman found that just 21 per cent of academic staff said they got proper support from senior managers, 49 per cent said they were helped adequately by their line managers, and 57 per cent felt supported by colleagues.
She found that the sector slightly exceeded the HSE's benchmarks on understanding roles and responsibilities, and on the incidence of bullying.
Dr Kinman, whose AUT study is expected to form the basis of a parliamentary debate soon, said that the results could be worse than her report suggests.
"The study focused on universities with members in the AUT," she said. "And evidence from other studies on stress suggests that the situation is worse in new universities, where the AUT is not represented. So the overall picture could be worse."
Dr Kinman's comments came after last week's Times Higher report that the HSE had already taken steps against De Montfort University over its failure to control stress levels.
The HSE demanded an action plan from De Montfort, but stopped short of using its legal powers, which extend as far as criminal prosecution.
The HSE estimates that work-related stress costs society between £3.7 billion and £3.8 billion a year. An estimated 13.4 million working days were lost to stress, depression and anxiety in 2001. About 500,000 workers are estimated to be suffering from stress.
An HSE spokesman said that education - there are no separate figures for higher education - was one of the worst hit areas.