Researchers have found the first clear signs of a direct link between high levels of staff stress and the poor performance of their universities in research and teaching, writes Phil Baty.
As part of a nationwide study investigating levels of stress among almost 4,000 academics at 14 higher education institutions, Plymouth University research fellow Michelle Tytherleigh has discovered that the institutions whose staff reported the highest levels of stress had the lowest scores in the research assessment exercise and had poorer results for teaching quality.
"The findings are so exciting because objective and public performance measures such as the RAE are so high on universities' list of priorities," Dr Tytherleigh said. "While universities are not doing enough to tackle stress, they can now see that dealing with it can help them improve their performance."
The project team, led by Lancaster University psychologist Cary Cooper, was initially assigned to monitor occupational stress reported by all categories of university staff in a project for the Higher Education Funding Council for England. But when the reported stress levels for individual institutions were compared with external objective performance measures, the team found some strong correlations.
"In particular, institutions that reported the higher levels of stress relating to job overload, job insecurity and lack of job control, as well as lower levels of perceived commitment from their organisations, were also those who had low scores in the RAE," Dr Tytherleigh said.
Staff from one institution with a low average RAE score (1.5 out of 7) reported higher levels of stress. When asked to quantify the levels of commitment their organisation showed towards them, staff at this university gave their employers three out of ten. At another institution where the average RAE score was much higher, staff gave employers five out of ten for the level of commitment shown towards them.
There was also a link between higher levels of stress-related physical and psychological ill-health and lower RAE scores. Similar correlation emerged when stress levels were compared with indicators of teaching performance.
Judging an institution's teaching performance based on a teaching score that accumulates independent measures such as Quality Assurance Agency assessment results, student entry qualifications and student employability, the researchers found a clear link between low teaching scores and high stress levels.
One institution with a teaching score of 75.47 out of 100 had an average job insecurity score of ten (out of ten) and a score for the lack of perceived job control of nine. In contrast, an institution with a teaching score of 81.33 had a job insecurity score of six and a lack of job control score of five.