Union outs institutions with 'climate of fear'

UCU survey paints picture of deteriorating workplace environment. Jack Grove reports

November 22, 2012

Credit: Alamy
Climate of fear: respondents regularly face 'offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour'

Bullying, harassment and conflicts with colleagues are contributing to growing stress levels in the academy, a survey has found.

The effects of strained relationships in the workplace have emerged from an occupational health survey completed by about 14,000 university employees.

Staff were asked by the University and College Union whether they had suffered any form of bullying or harassment in the form of unkind words or behaviour, or had experienced high levels of conflict with colleagues.

Stress levels were higher among academics than in other professions, the survey reveals.

On a scale of one to five, university staff scored 3.53, with 1 marking the most stressful environment. That compares with an overall stress level of 4.01 measured in a national Health and Safety Executive survey in 2008.

In its report, the UCU names 19 universities that it deems to have the highest levels of workplace conflict.

Disagreements over "unfair" workloads may trigger many of the conflict issues raised by staff, said Stephen Court, senior research officer at the UCU, who conducted the survey.

"The way that workload is allocated in a department can seem not very transparent or fair to individuals," said Mr Court. "Some people might feel they have unfairly high teaching workloads, while others are allowed to prioritise research, particularly in the run-up to the research excellence framework."

He added that heads of department and other middle managers can also experience "strain from all sides as they try to implement institutional priorities".

The UCU also conducted a poll about bullying in the sector. At one in three institutions, more than 10 per cent of respondents say they face bullying - defined as "offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour" - on a regular basis.

According to the survey, which excluded institutions that returned fewer than 53 respondents, Canterbury Christ Church University had the highest proportion of staff reporting bullying, with 19.2 per cent of respondents saying they face the problem "always" or "often".Next was Staffordshire University (17.2 per cent), Brunel University (16.3 per cent) and Teesside University (16.1 per cent).

Sally Hunt, the UCU's general secretary, said: "At best, the universities represented in this survey have a climate of fear and anxiety, which demoralises and demotivates staff.

"At worst, overt harassment and bullying of individuals is going unchecked. We know from our members that this can have extreme effects on physical and mental health, and in the worst-case scenarios it renders experienced, hard-working staff no longer able to do their jobs."

She said universities should work with the UCU, which is running an Anti-Stress and Bullying Week from 19 to 26 November, to combat the problems identified by the polls.

Last month, the occupational health survey also showed that academics suffered from high stress levels as a result of heavy workloads and a long-hours culture.


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