University stress levels worse than ever, says New Zealand union

Institutional leaders ‘don’t listen’, leaving line managers to provide little more than ‘palliative care’

October 2, 2021
Young woman exhausted after running on a bright pink cycleway road in Auckland, New Zealand.
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Just 3 per cent of New Zealand tertiary education workers believe management takes workplace stress seriously, even though all but 3 per cent of staff report being affected by stress, new research suggests.

A survey by the Tertiary Education Union has found that 85 per cent of respondents are under moderate to severe stress, with 29 per cent experiencing health problems as a result. Just 3 per cent said stress was of “no relevance” to them.

Yet institutional leaders often react “by blaming the personal failings of staff”, according to the union’s president, Tina Smith.

The survey found that institutional executives overlooked staff workload issues despite the scale of the problem. “In every meeting we hold, in almost every conversation we have with the members of TEU, the topic of stress and workloads looms high,” Ms Smith said.

The survey in April and May followed two earlier questionnaires last year. The new one attracted more than 1,000 respondents, including over 600 from universities.

It found that workplace anxiety had become worse, with 40 per cent of respondents reporting high or very high stress levels, up from 24 per cent in May 2020. “This was before our latest Delta outbreak, which many say has had an even greater deleterious effect,” Ms Smith noted.

Representative body Universities New Zealand said the survey represented only a small proportion of the union’s members, covering just 2 per cent of sector staff. “This doesn’t mean their voices and the experiences expressed in the survey aren’t heard,” said chief executive Chris Whelan.

“We have been committed to minimising Covid-19’s impact on students’ lives and academic performance and acknowledge our staff for all they have done to make this and other things possible during the pandemic. Their wellbeing is a priority too and we have systems to support it. Where staff are under extreme stress, we encourage them to seek the guidance and support of their university through their manager or employee support services.”

Most academic respondents to the survey said they were able to have open discussions about student welfare, but just one-third said it was possible to talk about staff wellbeing. Most general staff said they were unable to have open discussions about workload, work flexibility, online delivery or changes to teaching. Fewer than 30 per cent of staff said they received clear and detailed information about restructures, mergers, redundancies or pay cuts.

Ms Smith said the pandemic and the government’s response to it were just one of “four intersecting processes” that had combined to produce a “strained sector”. The others were ongoing underfunding, the “ill effects” of competition and vocational education reform.

Report author Charles Sedgwick said the survey respondents had told “a story of the undoing of Aotearoa’s tertiary education system, particularly in universities, that precedes Covid-19 and is set to survive it”.

He said most respondents had not blamed line managers, regarding them as “sympathetic and understanding”, but often able to offer little more than “palliative care”.

Mr Whelan said the human and financial challenges of the past 18 months had been unprecedented. “With borders closed to international students, we have had to make difficult decisions to ensure long-term financial survival and preserve as many jobs as possible.

“Again, we thank our staff for their understanding and effort as we work to get through Covid with a focus on protecting jobs and the quality of our teaching and research for Aotearoa New Zealand’s future.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

This is exactly why any future REF that puts weight on Research environment should include a survey of research staff. If you can have a NSS, why not NRSS (National research staff survey)? If the powers that be could grow a spine may be we will have this for the next one.

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