Moving towards a happy place

November 30, 2001

Happier staff can bring financial rewards. Martin Stanton says it is time universities showed they care.

Is your university a happy place? Does it care for you or show concern for your health? Is it responsive and supportive when family or relationship issues significantly impact on working life?

These are simple, if not naive, questions that invite a wry smile from those still scarred by decade-long cutbacks and under-funding. But they have a solid legal and commercial basis. First of all, British universities, like all employers, have a legal obligation to protect and care for the health of their employees, and failure to fulfil this obligation has incurred large costs in court. Second, research has indicated that universities can gain significant financial benefit from establishing a more caring workplace environment.

The pressure of legal and commercial change has already impacted on British higher education and most institutions have drafted, if not implemented, a range of policies addressing general issues of occupational health, including stress, harassment and bullying.

From August 1 this year, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has made £330 million available over the next three years for the development of human-resource strategies to attract, retain and reward university staff, and to tackle the causes of poor performance. The implications of this are significant. First, it acknowledges that the intellectual productivity of a university is bound up with its working environment and that poor performance is not exclusively explicable or treatable on the individual level. Second, it recognises that British universities are in an international market for specialist staff and that the quality of care offered by an institution might have a significant effect on where such staff choose to work or settle.

This is an important advance, but the problems of how to design and implement support programmes that would offer this care have yet to be faced by universities. The great danger is that they will improvise independently and may opt to piece together minimal programmes from existing resources that will not meet the range of workplace issues that arise. An easy option, for example, would be to expand university student counselling services to include staff. However, students do not face the occupational health and legislation issues of university staff. Then there is the issue of confidentiality: staff in conflict with students may well be deterred if asked to share the same counselling service.

An alternative is for universities to seek independent support for employees as most large private-sector corporations do. Independent providers could offer competitive rates and different levels of staff support, according to the available funding. Staff are also likely to feel more secure about confidentiality, as the counsellors and specialists involved are unlikely to have formal links with the university. The downside is that existing support programmes are geared towards commercial enterprise, and may not incorporate issues raised by research in universities - notably the dynamics of research assessment.

But universities can make their own contribution to developing employee assistance, using their own academic expertise and research skills. In order for such programmes to be developed and promulgated, some practical problems would have to be overcome - not least the integration of research and service components of occupational health and occupational health psychology in higher education. It is vital, therefore, that the debate on the form staff support should take continue to evolve and that each university identifies its own needs.

The most visible effect of employee-assistance initiatives in universities is likely to be the appointment of new staff counsellors. They will ideally get the resources and cooperation needed to develop varied levels of staff support and not be restricted to the provision of individual counselling. The strongest argument against this limited approach will only come through extensive research of new services. Only that way can we ensure staff get the support they deserve.

Martin Stanton is professor, consultant staff counsellor and mediator in the occupational health department, University College London.

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