UEL breached health and safety law over work-related stress – HSE

University appeals against ruling sparked by union complaint over workload

December 23, 2021
Source: Alamy

A UK university has been found to have breached health and safety law by a government agency following complaints of “multiple cases of work-related stress” among academics.

An improvement notice sent to the University of East London by the Health and Safety Executive and seen by Times Higher Education appears to be only the second such warning served against a higher education institution over work-related stress risk assessments, the previous being against Liverpool Hope University in 2009.

In a letter to UEL’s governors and executive board, HSE inspector Miriam Hamblin writes that she has “identified contraventions of health and safety law”. Following complaints from the local University and College Union branch, she spoke to human resources staff at the university and was “provided with documentation to evidence the management structure in place to prevent and control work-related stress”.

“The evidence presented indicates that UEL do[es] not have a suitable and sufficient risk assessment for [work-related stress] for the purposes of controlling the risk to staff, though UEL has had clear evidence of the risk of stress-related ill health arising from their work activities,” the letter says.

The letter refers to a 2019 report to the board of governors showing “an increase in sickness absence data relating to mental ill health going back to 2017”; to mental health being “noted as the main reason for accessing assistance from occupational health…which had seen an uptick in both manager and self-referrals”; and to a November 2020 UCU survey that “demonstrated many academic staff members said they lacked agreed workloads and many responders indicated experience of work-related stress”.

UEL must “make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to employees’ health from work-related stress” or “take any equally effective measures to remedy the said contraventions”, and it must provide evidence that it has done so by April 2022, the letter explains.

UEL said it was appealing against the ruling, which was issued on 28 October.

Ruth Brown, the safety representative for the UCU branch and a senior lecturer in UEL’s department of social sciences, said workload was the “main cause” of work-related stress at the university.

The UCU survey found some staff complaining that workload meant that they were “feeling ill physically”, “working seven-day weeks on a common basis” and were “not really having any time for their personal life or their families”.

“Not having a proper risk assessment in place to manage work-related stress is making staff sick and has pushed them to breaking point. It’s bad for staff and bad for students,” said Amanda Sackur, a UCU regional support official.

She urged UEL to work with the UCU to act and “to start reducing dangerously high workloads”, warning that if the university “continues down this path, then we will have no option but to ballot for industrial action”.

A UEL spokeswoman said absence related to work-related stress was low and had “almost halved in incidence” in three years, but she acknowledged that there “is always more to do in addressing and reducing the occurrence and drivers of [work-related stress]”.

After having been served the improvement notice, she said, “we welcomed discussion on our continual improvement process whilst challenging both the process and the disproportionate response by the HSE to the evidence”.

“The university considered it had no option but to submit an appeal to the employment tribunal over this matter. The university does take the issues raised in the improvement notice seriously and has sought to consult with the HSE with the aim of addressing their concerns,” the spokeswoman said.


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Reader's comments (1)

The role of universities in the study of psychological health of people today is of exceptional importance