Stressed academics are ready to blow in pressure-cooker culture

UCU survey suggests that staff are finding life in the academy too demanding. Jack Grove reports

October 4, 2012

Credit: Alamy
Only 49 more hours to go: many staff suffer in a long-hours culture

Academics are suffering from growing stress levels as a result of heavy workloads, management issues and a long-hours culture, a survey has found.

Unachievable deadlines, acute time pressures and the need to work quickly were also common complaints identified by an occupational stress survey completed by more than 14,000 university employees.

Staff were asked by the University and College Union about areas that could potentially cause them stress, such as conflicting management demands, workloads and pressures on their time.

Academics experience far higher levels of stress in these areas than employees in other professions, the survey found.

On a scale of one to five, the stress level of university staff is 2.51 (when well-being is assessed on a scale of one to five, with one being the highest stress level).

This has worsened in the four years since the Health and Safety Executive's report Psychosocial Working Conditions in Britain in 2008 found that, when it came to demands on their time, academics had a stress level of 2.61 compared with 3.52 in the overall economy.

The UCU names 20 institutions as having the most stressed-out staff, including the universities of Exeter, Glasgow, Surrey and Birmingham.

However, the list comprises mainly post-1992 institutions, including Coventry, Oxford Brookes, Staffordshire, Swansea and London Metropolitan universities.

Institutions with the happiest staff include Brunel and Cardiff universities and the universities of Bath, Oxford and Cambridge, according to the survey.

"The results suggest that academics are under greater pressure from several different directions," said Stephen Court, a senior research officer at UCU, who compiled the report.

"There is pressure to win research funding under the new research excellence framework, while lecturers feel they need to raise their game in teaching with the introduction of higher tuition fees.

"There is also pressure to do well in the National Student Survey."

The UCU survey, which was conducted during term-time in late April, also polled full-time academics, as well as support staff at pre-1992 universities, about how many hours they worked each week.

Staff at the University of East London put in the longest hours in the sector: 53.7 per cent of respondents worked more than 50 hours a week. The issue has led UCU members to approve strike action this autumn over proposed changes to workload allocations.

UEL was followed closely by Oxford Brookes University, where 51.8 per cent of respondents said they worked more than 50 hours a week. Canterbury Christ Church University (50.8 per cent) and the University of Sussex (49.3 per cent) had the next most overstretched staff.

That compared with the University of Brighton, where only 22.7 per cent of staff said they worked more than 50 hours a week; 23.5 per cent at London South Bank University; and 28.3 per cent at the University of Sheffield.

"I think we could talk about a long-hours culture at many institutions," Mr Court said. "The days of the lazy don are consigned to the past - it is not the picture that emerges from this survey."

Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, said: "The result of all this pressure can only drive down standards for students. With funding cuts, increased workloads and rising expectations from students and parents paying much more for their education, the situation is likely to become even worse."

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