Stressed dons left suicidal

March 31, 2000

Australian academics claim their stress levels have risen dramatically over the past five years and are affecting their personal and professional welfare.

An initial study by Melbourne researchers found that stress is causing a range of physical and psychological health problems that are affecting family and personal relationships. Academics said the main stress factors are insufficient funding and resources, work overload, poor management practices, inadequate recognition and rewards, and job insecurity.

Academics said they are suffering from migraines, sleep disorders, back and neck pain, constant muscle tension, weight loss or gain, hypertension, heart problems and skin disorders.

Some academics under high work-related stress for long periods have suffered heart attacks and strokes, and others have attempted suicide. One academic said his 28-year marriage had ended because of stress.

In a survey of a random sample of staff at 16 universities, researchers at the Melbourne Business School, an offshoot of the University of Melbourne, found that academics have been experiencing work-related stress in moderate to very high levels. Diminishing resources mean they can no longer carry out their roles to a standard they believe appropriate, and this is adding to the stress.

The survey is the first phase of a three-year longitudinal investigation of occupational stress in universities. The project is being funded by an Australian Research Council grant in collaboration with the National Tertiary Education Union.

The researchers said a two-year break between the second and third phases of the project would give universities time to design and implement strategies to cut stress and would allow an evaluation of their effectiveness.

Results from the initial study indicate that rising stress is a result of unprecedented organisational change, including major funding cuts, large-scale restructuring and staff redundancies.

Contributing factors are the decline in staffing, higher student enrolments and a more diverse student body, introduction of new technologies and "unrealistic deadlines".

With fewer academics employed, there has been a loss of skills and knowledge while the workloads of those remaining have been increased. The rise in student numbers has contributed to increases in student-staff ratios and a growing number of feepaying and international students have meant more students of a "poorer standard".

The researchers wrote: "Academics said they felt like, and were treated like, cogs in a machine. Staff further reported that high levels of stress had damaged the morale in their workplaces and their own personal motivation towards their work."

A major source of stress is management's limited consultation of staff in decision-making.

Academics resented the lack of opportunity to contribute to important decisions. There was a common feeling that decisions made by management were based solely on corporate and financial considerations, as opposed to teaching, research and staff interests.

"In addition to the lack of consultation, staff reported that the lack of transparency surrounding management policies and decisions further contributed to their experience of stress and distrust towards management," the researchers said.

Academics' suggestions for reducing stress levels include better facilities, more resources and support services, increased staff consultation and greater "management transparency", as well as better promotion, recognition and reward processes.

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