UK academia ‘increasingly unsafe’ working environment

Study finds levels of psychological safety falling well short of national benchmarks, and getting worse

January 9, 2020
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Even the level of control that UK academics have over their work, traditionally a buffer against the job’s stress, is in decline

Threats to the mental health of academics working in UK universities have grown so intense that levels of psychological safety fall calamitously short of national standards and urgent action is required, according to researchers.

Scholars took the results of three surveys of academics conducted over a six-year period, each with thousands of respondents, and applied them to a tool developed by the Health and Safety Executive designed to help sectors compare psychosocial hazards against national benchmarks.

The results show universities scoring well below expected levels in almost all areas and getting worse over time.

Siobhan Wray, senior lecturer in organisational behaviour at the University of Lincoln, and Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, used the HSE’s management standards indicator to analyse sector performance in seven areas that impact on work-related stress: demands, control, manager support, peer support, relationship, role and change.

Scores at the 80th percentile or above are classed as very good, while areas below the 20th percentile are considered by the HSE to require “urgent action”.

However, drawing on surveys completed by University and College Union members, academics put their workplaces as being below the fifth percentile in six of the seven areas in 2014. The only area faring better was “control”, which scored 55 per cent, classed as “good, with room for improvement”.

Dr Wray and Professor Kinman, who presented their findings at the annual conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education, say that their data shows an overall pattern of “deteriorating well-being across time”.

In 2008, “control”, which covers areas such as having a say in your own work rate, met the expected level, scoring 85 per cent. This then dropped to 65-70 per cent in 2012, before falling again.

The score for “relationships” is also in decline, dropping from 25 per cent – “clear need for improvement” – in 2008, to 10-15 per cent in 2012, and then below 5 per cent in 2014.

None of the other areas has ever scored above the fifth percentile.

For Dr Wray, the decline in control should be a particular “alarm bell” for universities.

“In academia, there has always been an idea that although your job demands are high, your time control and autonomy are also very high, and this has acted as a buffer between job demands and psychological distress,” she told Times Higher Education. The survey indicated that scholars now had less choice in deciding how they work, less choice in their speed of work and less autonomy, she said.

The poor scores for manager support and peer support and declining scores for relationships were indicative of the strain that academic managers were under to produce results, but also of the strain felt by all staff, Dr Wray continued.

“If you have less time and have to work more intensively, there are fewer opportunities to support colleagues,” she said. “I don’t believe that the sense of collegiality in the sector is dead; but if your workload is so high you don’t have time to spend having proper conversations, it can be very difficult.”

Liz Morrish, visiting fellow in the School of Languages and Linguistics at York St John University, said the findings lent support to previous studies that showed that “workloads, additional demands and incursions into the control that academics have traditionally maintained over their work have all contributed to an increasingly stressful and unsafe working environment”.

The application of the HSE tool was helpful because the findings “quantify the perceptions of academics that their working environments have quite rapidly deteriorated into a situation where urgent action is required, and indeed mandated by the HSE”, Dr Morrish added.

Dr Wray said that although universities had started to focus more on well-being and counselling, she wanted to see them “looking at their culture and job design, asking themselves ‘how do we organise and manage work’”.

A spokeswoman for Universities UK said there were “many practical initiatives to support staff in mental health difficulties, to improve career paths and workplace cultures”.

“There remains more that can be done to create the supportive working environments in which both academic and professional staff thrive, including ongoing conversations about the structural conditions of work in higher education,” the spokeswoman said. “UUK looks forward to continuing work on this important issue with UCU and other key stakeholders.”


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