University staff less happy and more anxious than UK average

Sizeable number of staff members struggled over course of pandemic and are suffering from chronic stress and exhaustion, researchers say

July 19, 2021
Mother attempts to work from home on the computer and phone whilst her daughter copies her, makes a mess and throws the laundry around. for University staff less happy and more anxious than UK average
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Half of UK university staff who responded to a survey reported suffering from high levels of anxiety, one and a half times the national average, during the coronavirus pandemic.

Fifty per cent of the 1,182 academics and professionals questioned by researchers at Durham University over February and March this year reported high levels of anxiety, compared with a national figure of 32 per cent reported by the Office for National Statistics for the same period.

One in three university staff (33 per cent) reported low levels of happiness, compared with one in seven (14 per cent) of ONS respondents. Low life satisfaction was reported three times more frequently by university staff than by the general population – 36 per cent versus 12 per cent.

Writing in a preprint posted on the PsyArXiv server, researchers Isla Dougall, Mario Weick and Milica Vasilejevic say their findings suggest “that a sizable number of staff members struggled over the course of the pandemic and are suffering from chronic stress and exhaustion”.

However, the responses also shed light on inequalities within academia. A majority of respondents on fixed-term or hourly contracts – 53 per cent – reported having poor mental health, compared with 45 per cent of those on permanent contracts. Nearly two-thirds of respondents from ethnic minorities – 62 per cent – reported poor mental health, compared with 45 per cent of white respondents.

The additional pressures faced by parents and other carers – and the disproportionate burden shouldered by women – have been consistent themes throughout the pandemic, and are again evident in the Durham survey.

Analysis of responses suggested that 68 per cent of women with caring responsibilities were suffering from chronic emotional exhaustion, compared with 54 per cent of those without. Among men, 51 per cent of carers experienced chronic emotional exhaustion, compared with 38 per cent of non-carers.

Other factors affected respondents’ answers, too. Emotional exhaustion was significantly higher among those in research and teaching roles (62 per cent) compared with those in professional services (49 per cent). Chronic stress was highest among those in research-only roles.

The average number of hours worked a week was a significant issue, with a majority of those putting in more than 50 hours a week reporting poor mental health. In addition, more than a third of respondents (36 per cent) did not feel competent at work, and staff who felt competent had better mental health than those who did not.

The researchers write that their paper “suggests that as university communities we need to double down on our efforts to create an inclusive environment for all”.

Dr Weick, associate professor of quantitative social science at Durham, told Times Higher Education that universities should make mental health a strategic priority “as soon as possible, as we are likely to face another year of disruption caused by Covid”.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

They aren’t unique in this. Lockdown has been tough on all those employed on short term/hourly/daily contracts in all sectors. And tbh most of my academic colleagues have had a pretty easy lockdown compared to many other sectors. This will no doubt produce howls of outrage, but needs to be said to bring some balance to the discussion. HE isn’t unique in this issue. All employment sectors will face challenges over the next 2-3 years minimum as a result of the Coronavirus restrictions.
Pandemic working has hit staff hardest who are on teaching only contracts, the "University Teachers" of the post 92 sector. Not only does online delivery take more time, in my University we have been required to deliver extra classes to mitigate issues in student satisfaction. All of this means we have a number of colleagues who are considering leaving their roles. Add this to staffing issues exacerbated by EU staff returning home and we have a potential staffing crisis. But, what goes around comes around!
This result is not new but universities are not pressurised into doing anything about it because ONLY student mental, physical health, and wellbeing are what affect NSS and hence the focus of their attention.

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