Suicide don under 'huge stress' in job

September 15, 2006

Universities urged to review plans to outsource support services as inquest hears of work pressures leading up to academic's death. Tony Tysome reports.

Universities were urged to bolster staff support services this week after an inquest was told that an academic committed suicide after becoming unable to cope with the pressures of her job.

Kingston University is to conduct a review of its occupational health service for staff after an inquest heard how Diana Winstanley, a professor in the university's School of Human Resource management, hanged herself in her home in July shortly after complaining to her ex-husband about heavy workloads.

The university had received no indication that Professor Winstanley, who was an expert in work-related stress, was suffering as a result of her workload.

The tragic news comes as many universities are considering outsourcing confidential staff counselling services, which are seen as a vital lifeline for a growing number of academics suffering acute levels of stress.

David Berger, who chairs the Association for University and College Counselling and is head of counselling at Hull University where the service for staff is about to be outsourced, warned that outsourcing could in effect leave some staff with no support or outlet for their anxieties.

He said: "Although some staff may quite like it, others will find it virtually impossible to find the time to go to offices outside the university within normal working hours."

Mr Berger said there was anecdotal evidence that both work-related stress and mental ill-health were on the rise among academic staff. The AUCC is taking steps to plot the trend.

Sally Hunt, joint general secretary of the University and College Union, commented: "Our stress survey indicated borderline levels of psychological distress among staff. Employers must take action to reduce workloads and tackle the causes of occupational stress in the sector."

David Miles, Kingston's pro vice-chancellor for external affairs, told The Times Higher that the institution was preparing to review its staff support systems in the light of the tragedy.

Professor Miles said that higher education was "an area where people are expected to deliver high standards under pressured circumstances, and this is becoming increasingly so".

"There is a sense of profound shock here over Di's death. In the preceding weeks, to most people who met her she seemed to be her usual positive self," he said. "There was no indication she was suffering a level of stress that might have contributed to her death."

Professor Miles said that the university offered confidential counselling to its staff through its occupational health service and that it had recently revised its stress management policy.

Evidence submitted to the recent inquest, held at West Sussex Coroner's Court, suggested that Professor Winstanley was struggling in her job, which involved some overseas travel and grappling with challenges involving computer technology.

Professor Winstanley's former husband, Nicholas Jarrett, told the inquest that work had been the main cause of his ex-wife's anxiety shortly before her death.

Speaking to The Times Higher later, he said: "I have no doubt at all from the things that she said to me that she was under huge stress at work, and that she was finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the demands that were placed on her.

"I believe from what she said that she had inadequate administrative and technical support."

Christine Edwards, a colleague at Kingston and a long-standing friend of Professor Winstanley, said: "No one would have been more aware of the support available at the university than Diana.

"As far as we are aware, she had not set in motion any of the procedures within the university's human resources policies or accessed any of the support services open to her."

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