Would you choose your job again?

April 14, 2000

One in two lecturers is in poor psychological health, according to a survey by Gail Kinman.

Traditionally, being an academic was considered a highly satisfying and relatively stress-free job. Autonomy, tenure and a non-competitive culture were thought to protect academics from the working conditions usually associated with occupational stress - lack of control, job insecurity and lack of social support.

Now, however, conditions have changed. Lecturers have complained in recent years of the costs to them of "massification", "managerialism", steady growth in external scrutiny, reduced job security, and other changes.

At the British Psychological Association's annual conference yesterday, we presented the results of our survey of nearly 800 members of the Association of University Teachers. The union is to investigate the impact of recent change on the workforce. The results suggest academic work has become more demanding and long hours have become a necessity for most lecturers.

Sixty-seven per cent of respondents reported that their work is steadily encroaching on their private lives. More than half the sample find little time for hobbies and a similar proportion believed the quality of family life had suffered.

So far, the results chime with expectations. But some of our other findings are more unexpected and disturbing.

To date, the mental health of academics has not merited much attention. Our survey results, however, suggest a profession in psychological difficulty. Seventy per cent found their jobs stressful, with 25 per cent reporting having taken time off work in the last year because of a stress-related illness. Fifty-three per cent complained of poor psychological health - feeling constantly under strain, problems maintaining concentration, sleeplessness and feeling depressed. This is an extremely high figure compared with surveys of other professionals such as managers (38 per cent) or the level of poor psychological health in the general population (26 per cent).

Almost three-quarters of respondents believed their institutions and working conditions had undergone too many changes in too short a time. More than half thought these had predominantly negative effects. Perceptions of a bureaucratic and more aggressive management style were common. Many academics felt it threatened their professional independence.

Respondents were almost unanimous in their belief that the pressure to conduct and publish research had increased significantly in the past few years. Most said they lacked the time and the necessary support. More than 50 per cent thought their performance was compromised by lack of resources, particularly with regard to the quality of their teaching, research and scholarship.

Despite the perceived pressures of the job, the survey found a considerable degree of job satisfaction. Good relationships with students and the pleasures of conducting research were thought to be particularly satisfying. But about half the respondents still say their job satisfaction has been eroded over the past few years. The respondents' view of the future is not encouraging. Around three-quarters believe their jobs will become more stressful over the next few years. Almost half have seriously considered leaving or taking early retirement (a similar proportion wish they had chosen a different profession).

Whatever view one takes about recent change in higher education, the consequences for the sector of a stressed and dispirited workforce must be taken seriously. There are already widespread complaints that the recruitment of well-qualified academic staff is growing more difficult. This is hardly surprising when, as the survey indicates, many academics are actively discouraging their students from following in their footsteps (if not by direction, then by example). If we are to meet the government's expectations of further growth in student numbers and continued world-class provision, we can only do so with a profession that is well-qualified, healthy and happy.

Gail Kinman is lecturer in psychology, University of Luton. The research co-author is Fiona Jones of the University of Hertfordshire.

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