UK university staff ‘mental health crisis not getting better’

New figures in Hepi report show continued rise in counselling service referrals, with warnings of further impact from pandemic crisis

April 30, 2020
A counselling session
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There has been a “155 per cent rise in staff access to counselling in recent years” across 17 UK universities, bringing warnings of declining mental health among university staff and potential further worsening amid the coronavirus crisis.

An analysis published by the Higher Education Policy Institute also showed that from 2016 to 2018, there was a rise of 19 per cent in occupational health referrals at the 16 universities for which comparable data were given.

The figures in Pressure Vessels II: An update on mental health among higher education staff in the UK are based on Freedom of Information requests on staff demand for counselling and occupational health services. The report was co-written by Liz Morrish, a visiting fellow in the School of Languages and Linguistics at York St John University, and Nicky Priaulx, professor of law at Cardiff University,

The report is an update on research published last year by Hepi that showed that at 59 universities that responded to the researchers’ FoI requests, counselling referrals climbed by an average of 77 per cent between 2009 and 2015, while occupational health referrals rose by 64 per cent.

According to the new analysis, there was a 170 per cent average percentage rise in occupational health referrals among the 10 universities that presented complete data from 2009 to the end of the 2017-18 academic year.

During this period, the University of Kent’s staff occupational health referrals rose 500 per cent, while Keele University experienced a rise of 460 per cent and De Montfort University had a rise of 392 per cent.

The authors found that from 2016 to 2018, there was a 16 per cent increase in counselling access at the 14 universities for which there was comparable data.

At the five universities where there was comparable data, the average rise in staff access to counselling between 2009-10 and 2017-18 was 172 per cent.

The report also found that women are more likely than men to access staff counselling and, for occupational health, the largest proportion of individuals referred were non-academic staff.

Dr Morrish said the pair had decided to update their research because “although the initial report was well received on the ground, vice-chancellors batted it away, saying the data was too old and that improvements had already been made.”

However, the update showed that the year-on-year increases of mental health referrals had continued past 2015.

According to the report, although more use of mental health services can sometimes reflect “welcome improved access to support, the analysis provides strong support for our claims about the declining mental health of university staff”.

“The mental health crisis in universities is not getting better and, crucially, it will not be improved by the coronavirus outbreak,” Dr Morrish said.

Dr Morrish said she had already heard reports of universities cancelling or cutting down research leave and not replacing retired individuals or leaving positions unfilled. “All of this is an increased burden on staff, increasing their workload but leaving them less in control of their work,” she added.

Autonomy and control had already “evaporated in recent years as performance management and metric surveillance have extended their reach”, according to the report.

These issues, combined with the huge uncertainties the sector is facing because of the Covid-19 crisis, have “created a bleak outlook for staff”, Dr Morrish said. “There needs to be a change in attitude [from leaders]. There is a feeling we don’t want to go back; staff are looking for cooperation rather than competition,” she continued.

University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady said the report should be “a wake-up call” for the sector

“Universities need to understand this is a real problem that must be dealt with, not excused or underplayed,” she added.

“Staff constantly go above and beyond such is their commitment to their work and their students, and we have seen that again in their magnificent response to the Covid-19 crisis. But enough is enough.”

In a statement Universities UK said “the health, wellbeing and safety of all staff and all students is a priority for universities, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic. Universities are working hard to understand and address staff concerns in this evolving situation, to ensure that they are well-informed and to support them.

“It is also important to acknowledge that evidence of increased numbers of staff using counselling services may also signify increased access to counselling and other forms of support provided by universities,” the vice-chancellor's group said. 

Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said it was “disappointing that this updated paper, using such a limited pool of universities, still fails to reflect on the extent of positive mental health initiatives and support prevalent in universities.

“Perhaps most surprising is that the analysis has once again avoided putting these figures in the context of the total staff populations and focuses solely on percentage increases from a very small historic base rather than a more holistic review of the situation. It could have viewed the same increases as a positive improvement to staff well-being in the HE sector,” he said.

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Reader's comments (3)

I have suggested this before and will suggest it again: include staff wellbeing and health as a significant indicator for university rankings. I bet you will see universities being forced to do something about it.
Good idea. Unfortunately, this goes against the ideological convictions of this rag and its various rankings.
And even if you implemented such measures, they would soon be turned into targets with managers finding ever more ingenious ways to game the system and fiddling the numbers (our health Secretary is a case in point). They would also most likely be tempted to crowed out or discriminate against vulnerable groups even more (in order to "produce" better figures). These rankings and the metrics obsession in general are one of the root causes of our current malaise.