Stress levels exceed safety parameters

February 18, 2010

Scholars are experiencing levels of stress at work that exceed standards laid down by the Heath and Safety Executive, a study reveals.

The research, published in the current issue of Higher Education Quarterly, is based on a survey of nearly 10,000 people working in academic or academic-related jobs in the UK. They were questioned about seven job-related "psychosocial hazards", with the results "benchmarked" for the first time against HSE guidelines.

The results reveal that "the majority of health and safety standards for managing work-related stress are not being met" by the sector.

The demands of academic careers, including growing workloads, are pushing stress up beyond recommended levels, the study says.

Scholars are also experiencing higher than recommended stress levels over the way "change" is managed and communicated, with universities failing to properly consult employees and inform them about how new regimes will work.

The survey also identified a "considerable shortfall" in support from managers and peers.

"The perceived quality of interpersonal relationships at work failed to meet minimum standards," notes the study, "Psychosocial hazards in UK universities: Adopting a risk assessment approach".

There was one area in which universities performed well: the academics questioned felt they had control over their work.

"Wellbeing in the higher education sector in relation to job autonomy is higher than average," the study says, adding that the proportion of academics who say they can work flexible hours and decide when to take a break is high.

The research was conducted by Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, in conjunction with the University and College Union.

Professor Kinman said that while higher education was not the only sector with high stress levels, it should be doing better. She pointed out that the survey was conducted 18 months ago, "at a time of relative calm".

"What would happen if it was redone today, with all the job insecurity in the sector?" she asked.

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