Universities were warned this week that they could face prosecution over stress levels among their staff after it emerged that health and safety inspectors had already taken unprecedented action over conditions at De Montfort University.
A damning report, seen by The Times Higher , found that work pressures left staff feeling unable to take lunch breaks or annual leave.
In what is believed to be a first for higher education, the Health and Safety Executive found De Montfort to be in breach of its health at work regulations and has ordered urgent reforms.
The HSE stopped short of issuing "enforcement action", and it did not invoke its legal powers to act on stress in the workplace.
But lecturers' leaders said the intervention signalled a new focus on stress-related illness as a legal issue that could hit universities hard.
The HSE can launch criminal prosecutions.
"The action against De Montfort looks like a wake-up call for the sector," said Jonathan Whitehead, spokesman for the Association of University Teachers. "The bottom line is that universities are not taking stress seriously enough. If they do not take immediate steps, legal sanctions are likely."
The HSE, acting on a complaint by a member of lecturers' union Natfhe, sent inspectors to De Montfort last year. The audit report found that "many staff feel there is a stigma associated with stress that will be used as a black mark should job losses occur".
Inspectors found that staff relationships on the Bedford campus had deteriorated so much that there was an "implicit acceptance of verbal aggression". They also reported that staff had no confidence in procedures to address bullying and harassment.
The report found "little evidence that work-related stress has been managed at all... and no one has been held accountable - at any management level - for this". It reported "a pervasive attitude that this issue needs to be addressed only when conditions have deteriorated to the point where it can no longer be ignored" and noted that "many managers... are subject to the same stressors as their staff and simply try to ignore problems in the hope that they will go away".
HSE inspector Alison Ashworth told De Montfort's vice-chancellor that the university was in breach of some Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 - the university had not done the required risk assessment and it lacked effective monitoring arrangements. She demanded an action plan by October 2004.
A spokesman for De Montfort said he was confident that the issues had been addressed. "The university responded with a detailed action plan in advance of the deadline set by the HSE and in full consultation with managers and trade union health and safety representatives."
The HSE has identified work-related stress as a priority area. It began piloting management standards on stress in November.
A Natfhe analysis of the Labour Force Survey found that higher education staff reported greater stress than those in other sectors. In a report for the AUT in November, 69 per cent of academics said they found their work stressful and half showed borderline levels of psychological distress.
Andy Pike, a national official for higher education at Natfhe, said universities had to act now that the HSE was interested in stress in higher education.