Stress in academy ‘could cost universities’

Paper finds increased administration and policy changes are raising stress in scholars

June 5, 2016

Increasing stress among scholars could have implications for universities’ finances and student experience scores, according to the author of new research.

Ann Macaskill, head of research ethics and professor of health psychology at Sheffield Hallam University, added that academics might consider leaving higher education if academic work continued getting more stressful. Consequently, it was up to universities to make working environments as manageable as possible for their staff, she argued.

Academics “will be off, long-term, with [stress-related] conditions, which is expensive for universities and disrupts the students’ experience”, she told Times Higher Education. “Or they may make different career choices. I’ve heard people my age saying: ‘if it had been like this I wouldn’t have gone into academia.’”

In her co-authored paper, “A qualitative study of the UK academic role: positive features, negative aspects and associated stressors in a mainly teaching-focused university”, published in the Journal of Further and Higher Education, Professor Macaskill and her colleagues interviewed 31 academics from a post-92 UK university to see how they coped with the “stressors of work”.

The team found that increasing administration workload, increases in student numbers and having less time with students were all significant sources of stress for academics. Others included government policy changes affecting the future of higher education, along with the perceived increasing insecurity of academic posts.

The team found that 90 per cent of academics were “extremely unhappy” with the level of administration they are required to undertake and the level of bureaucracy within the university.

“There’s a paperwork trail that follows everything, and academics are at the end of the line having to fill it in,” Professor Macaskill said. “That’s the kind of level they’re talking about – the bureaucracy. I think it’s just unfortunate that academics are at the coalface and the bottom of the chain when it comes to filling in forms. People were very frustrated by the amount of admin they had to do.”

She said that the knock-on effect of administration and the changes to policy, seen as adding to bureaucracy, were detracting from the aspects of academic work that the interviewees valued.

“Teaching students was the satisfying bit – the student contact: to see them grow and change,” she said. “[Universities and government] have to look at what can they remove from the academic’s role if they’re going to spend more time with students.

“That’s why they found admin so frustrating – because it takes you away from students. There is this tension, and the external bodies [have brought in these policies] without really thinking: where does the work happen? The REF carries huge burdens for academics in preparing for it. [Also consider] the bureaucracy that’ll no doubt come from the TEF. Who does that put the most pressure on?”

Professor Macaskill said some academics feel that work “becomes unremitting” and the sector must allow time away from the academy.

“I’m an optimist, [but] there’s no long vacations any more, we just continue the work in cycle,” she said. “People in academia need to [be able to] book time to celebrate our successes and have time out.”

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Reader's comments (1)

In conjunction with the stress of excess administrative work and bureaucracy, managerialism, including performance management schemes, and its abuses in the form of outright bullying have made higher education an extremely undesirable profession for all but the ignorant and/or masochistic entry level career professionals.

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