New stressbusting rules target academic angst

April 7, 2006

Claire Sanders reports that universities top the stress league, but change is afoot

The latest official figures have revealed higher than average levels of stress among university staff, prompting employers to issue new guidance on tackling the problem.

Figures from the Health and Safety Executive for 2003-04 show that 930 out of 100,000 education staff reported stress, depression or anxiety in a 12-month period compared with an average of 730 across all industries.

Jim Foulds, chairman of the health and safety group at the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, said: "This statistic appeared uniform across all parts of the education sector. It is clear from the growing evidence that stress is a significant problem in universities."

He emphasised that reducing stress at work was part of good management.

"Universities do not have to spend money putting a whole set of new procedures in place; rather, they need to ensure their current initiatives work properly," he said.

But the guide, which has been produced in collaboration with trade unions, points out that adapting existing procedures may require a "change of culture and approach within the institution".

It also makes clear that the management of stress in the workplace is a priority for the Health and Safety Executive, which has issued stress management standards for employers. It encourages universities to adopt them as the "safest and simplest way of achieving compliance".

The standards cover workload; autonomy (how much say people have in decisions); ways to avoid conflict; roles and responsibilities; and how change is managed.

Roger Kline, head of the universities department at lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "It is no good just being tough on the symptoms of stress.

Employers must also be tough on the causes of stress." He said that excessive workloads and an increase in bureaucracy, which took control away from academics, contributed to stress.

The guide emphasises that there are now significant legal obligations on universities.

Birmingham helps staff tackle problems

In 1995, Birmingham University carried out a survey to measure levels of stress at the institution.

David Harrison, assistant director of human resources, said: "We were the first university in the country to do this.

"We knew we had a problem with stress - and the findings confirmed this."

Since then, the university has carried out a rolling programme of surveys across all departments and occupational groups.

"We have found wide variations," Mr Harrison said. "Some departments, often the successful ones, report low levels of stress. Others obviously have serious problems."

He said that on closer inspection the reasons for high levels of stress tended to be a mixture of internal pressures such as poor management and external ones often linked to funding.

Birmingham has since used Rewarding and Developing Staff initiative funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England to run staff development programmes for managers.

"Our attitude is that good managers reduce stress," Mr Harrison said.

Birmingham is the only university in the country to buy in the services of the Citizens Advice Bureau to offer free advice to staff.

"This is an enormously popular service," Mr Harrison said. "By helping staff to tackle problems that they may have outside work, such as debt, we reduce the pressure on them in work."

The university is about to begin surveying staff in departments for a second time.

"Only when we get the results of our second surveys will we know how successful we have been in preventing and tackling stress," Mr Harrison said.

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