UK and Australian universities ‘more stressful than Uganda’

First transnational study of stress levels in higher education finds Germany’s academics are the world’s happiest

May 4, 2017
asian woman with hulk painting
Source: Rex

Academics working in the UK and Australia experience more stress in their job than their counterparts in Iran and Uganda, according to a study.

The first global comparison of stress levels in different higher education sectors suggests that the world’s happiest researchers are to be found in Germany, while scholars working in China feel the greatest strain.

Roland Persson, professor of educational psychology at Sweden’s Jönköping University, created the ranking by analysing 91 articles, literature reviews and national surveys on workplace stress covering 34 countries.

Germany’s success in generating high staff morale and strong job satisfaction among academics can be attributed to the country’s relative lack of a performance management culture, says Professor Persson.

Canada, Denmark, Finland and Malaysia are also judged to be relatively stress-free sectors by Professor Persson, whose research is due to be published in a book later this year.

According to the study, “The management and mismanagement of academic staff worldwide”, China’s universities are the most stressful largely because of the pressures faced by female academics, who receive little help in juggling academic and personal commitments.

“Female academics will face all the pressures of their job, but if they have children, they are expected to take care of their family – the same is not true for men,” Professor Persson told Times Higher Education.

The UK and Australia are ranked mid-table in Professor Persson’s assessment, coming ahead of Russia and Pakistan but behind the US, Japan, the Netherlands and Singapore on well-being.

Several other countries, including Iran, Turkey, Uganda, Greece and Portugal, are also deemed to have more pleasant work environments than the UK and Australia, which are placed in the same stress-level category as France, India, Mexico and Spain.

Professor Persson, who has previously worked at the University of Huddersfield, said that it was no exaggeration to rate the UK behind Iran and Turkey on workplace well-being, although the Turkish studies predated the crackdown on academic freedom in the country. British academics’ job satisfaction and happiness had been significantly damaged by the ever-growing influence of the research excellence framework, he argued.

“The deterioration [in staff well-being] between 2006 and 2010 has been remarkable,” he said.

“The pressure caused by the REF has grown much worse…if you examine newer universities, in particular, they have really embraced the concepts of new public management wholeheartedly,” he added, saying these are a major source of staff unhappiness.

Professor Persson’s subjective ranking of sectors relies heavily on national staff surveys conducted over the past 20 years. The largest one polled almost 38,000 people, and the average number of participants was 1,430.

While studies showed that academics often enjoyed high levels of job satisfaction, the application of the “lean management” model developed initially by Toyota, which emphasises continual improvement, contributed hugely to workplace stress, said Professor Persson.

“Imposing an industrial model of management on academia fails to understand that scholars need autonomy to function,” he said.

“Academics are not used to being managed as if they were working at BT – they need to be trusted to do their jobs, but management does not understand how science and creativity really work.”

Professor Persson’s review identifies excessive workload as a key driver of stress, alongside a lack of support, understanding and respect from managers.

Unfair recognition and promotion systems, and feelings of inadequacy, were also common themes worldwide.

Of 30 studies that examined the relationship between stress and gender, 15 reported women to be more prone to stress than their male colleagues, while four found the opposite.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UK’s University and College Union, called the findings concerning.

“Domestic and international surveys show high levels of stress among UK academics,” she said. “Our own work in this area points to high workloads and poor management as key reasons for high stress levels.

“Many academics and academic-related staff are clearly under far too much pressure, and we know that this level of stress in the workplace can be very damaging to mental and physical health.”

Stress levels for academics by country, subjectively assessed (5 defines alarming stress levels; 0 describes no or minimal stress)

Stress level Country Stress level Country
5 China 2 Greece
4 Croatia   Iran
  Pakistan   Republic of Ireland
  Russia   Japan
3 Algeria   Netherlands
  Argentina   Portugal
  Australia   Singapore
  Brazil   South Africa
  Chile   Turkey
  Colombia   Uganda
  France   US
  India 1 Canada
  Mexico   Denmark
  Nigeria   Finland
  Peru   Malaysia
  Romania 0 Germany

Source: Roland Persson, Jönköping University

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