Stressed lecturers plagued by illness

April 14, 2000

More than half of those who work in Britain's universities are on the brink of depression or anxiety, while a quarter have suffered a stress-related illness in the past 12 months, according to research.

Recent changes in higher education were blamed for heightened stress levels.

Growing conflict between work and home life, the mushrooming of bureaucracy and job insecurity were the principal villains of the piece.

The study, conducted for the Association of University Teachers, warns that changes are needed to attract young graduates to an ageing profession where the average age is 45.

"Work-related stress is likely to cost the British university sector dearly," it concludes.

The grim portrait of university life was revealed yesterday at the British Psychological Society's annual conference in Winchester.

The two experts behind the report, Gail Kinman of the University of Luton and Fiona Jones of the University of Hertfordshire, quizzed 782 full-time academic teaching and/or research staff of all ranks, 90 per cent of whom were from the older universities.

The results showed that by a standard measure of psychological health, 53 per cent of academics were in a poor condition, reporting problems such as poor concentration, inability to sleep and depression. Dr Kinman said they were at "borderline levels of depression and anxiety".

By comparison, 26 per cent of the British population is in a similar state, rising to 39 per cent of professionals as a whole.

More than three-quarters believed their job had become more stressful over the past five years, with more work being taken home, a poorer staff-student ratio and pressure to produce research papers while dealing with growing amounts of bureaucracy. Most expected it to get harder in the future.

One academic said: "I am constantly at the end of my tether. The workload is unbearable; it is not humanly possible to do everything in the time available."

Another asked: "How on earth do we achieve excellence if we want to live an ordinary life with family and friends and a good night's rest?"

Sixty-two per cent said their social lives had suffered from the demands of their jobs.

Divorce rates in one department were remarkably high, according to an academic.

"Trying to stay married in this atmosphere is hard work; my wife is thoroughly fed up with me rushing to my study the moment I get in," he said.

Dr Kinman said those who reported their work was encroaching more onto their lives and had little time to pursue personal interests or to attend to their families were most often those who had the highest stress levels and lowest psychological health.

The impact in terms of sick leave was found to be high.

The survey found that 24 per cent reported suffering a stress-related illness during the last year severe enough to warrant taking time off work. The sick list included high blood pressure, migraines and stomach ulcers.

Those who faced the most difficulties were generally aged between 51 and 60 years or were employed as administrative, library and computer staff.

More than half of those surveyed said they regretted choosing an academic career and 44 per cent said they had seriously considered leaving the sector in the past few years.

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