No sex please, we're stressed

September 26, 2003

It's official: university staff make more serious professional errors, suffer more health problems, are more likely to resort to drink and have less sex as a result of stress and overwork compared with other workers.

Evidence that the education sector performs worse than the workforce in general on almost all measures of job satisfaction is revealed today in exclusive analysis of the annual work-life balance survey for The THES and lecturers' union Natfhe.

Natfhe this week warned of an "epidemic" of stress that it said was seriously damaging the quality of university teaching and research, and could have far more serious consequences in terms of health and safety at work.

Respondents to the survey admitted to a number of serious professional errors as a result of stress and overwork, ranging from submitting erroneous exam papers and "flawed" research papers to potentially deadly accidents in laboratories.

"Natfhe believes a national agreement (with employers) on stress is needed, setting out the duty of care of individual institutions and warning of the consequences of not taking proactive measures to protect staff," said Roger Kline, head of the universities department at Natfhe.

The analysis was carried out by Wendy Richards, lecturer in industrial relations at Keele University, who helps compile the annual survey with charity the Work Life Balance Centre.

She has taken the results of last year's survey, published in February 2003 and, in a "special analysis" for higher education, she has separated education workers from survey responses in general.

Although she was unable to separate respondents from higher and further education from those in schools, she said the majority of education respondents were in post-compulsory education.

The survey found that 65.7 per cent of education staff, compared with just under half of the general workforce, reported working more than 40 hours a week.

While 42 per cent of education workers take more than five hours' worth of work home with them a week, only 19 per cent of the general workforce do.

Almost a quarter of education staff never have time for a lunch break, compared with 15 per cent in general.

And a staggering 97.6 per cent of education employees (compared with 92.3 per cent in general) reported making "a serious error due to stress/overwork". These ranged from mistakes with serious quality implications, to "life-threatening" errors.

One respondent admitted to submitting a "flawed" journal paper that threatened the career of his PhD student and another admitted to publishing "incorrect results". One lecturer admitted failing to complete documents for the approval of a course "that then had students attending it even though it did not officially exist" and another said they had forgotten to send vital material to an external examiners' meeting, leading to serious criticism of the university. Another made errors in an examination paper.

One lecturer insulted a group of students who were complaining, and another miscalculated the number of applicants to a course and over-recruited by 18 per cent.

Other respondents said they had missed research application deadlines and lost funding for their departments.

Other mistakes had serious health and safety implications. One respondent said they had "mixed up infectious waste", leading to the "potential release of a dangerous pathogen into the environment". Another said they had "mishandled a toxic chemical".

One admitted to a mistake "when working with high-pressure hydrogen". He said that the problem was discovered during a second check, but "otherwise there could have been loss of life" and damage to a multimillion pound facility.

The research also found that long hours and overwork are having serious effects on employees' lives and family relations.

More than half in the education sector fail to take all their annual leave entitlement, compared with 38 per cent in general. Almost a third in education said they had cancelled holidays, compared with under 20 per cent in general.

A third of education workers agreed that "overwork often leaves me too tired for sex", compared with a quarter of workers in general. And 5.6 per cent blamed work for the break-up of their relationship, compared with 4.9 per cent in general.

Overwork is also affecting respondents' health. Some 99.2 per cent of the - albeit self-selecting - survey respondents in education complained that they had been ill as a result of the way they worked, compared with 93.7 per cent in general. Symptoms included fatigue (51 per cent), heart trouble (5.5 per cent) and serious mental illness (4 per cent).

Natfhe's Mr Kline said: "Excessive workloads are reaching epidemic levels in higher educationI At this rate it won't be long before the Health and Safety Executive follow up their recent prosecution of Dorset Hospitals National Health Service Trust over stress with the prosecution of a higher education institution."

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