The need to do more with less is driving the mental health crisis

Human beings can only work at full capacity for so long before they become incapable of doing any work at all, says an anonymous university employee

July 10, 2019
Illustration of man spinning plates
Source: Getty

Following the 2008 global financial crisis, employers in all industries made redundancies or opted not to replace departing staff. This was not necessarily because there was less work to be done: it was a simple, bearish response to uncertainty that capitalised on a climate in which messages such as “we all have to work a little harder to manage” and “you’re lucky to still have a job” were an easy sell.

In UK higher education, the trend of doing more with less (fewer) has been sustained. We have weathered the deepening of target-based managerialism (exemplified by the failed teaching excellence framework) and the financial impact of student fee reforms, governmental hostility to international student recruitment and vice-chancellors’ penchant for ambitious capital programmes.

You could argue that our politicians and managers were right; we were able to stretch to cover the gaps, to knuckle down and get by. But, 11 years on from the credit crunch, the evidence is mounting that the higher education sector is reaching breaking point. May’s paper on mental health by Liz Morrish for the Higher Education Policy Institute revealed alarming and widespread increases in the numbers of HE staff reaching out for help; a shocking 41 per cent of respondents to a survey declared that their workload negatively affects their mental well-being. And a paper on casualisation published last week by the University and College Union revealed that 71 per cent of respondents to a survey believed that their mental health had been damaged by working on the insecure contracts that have proliferated in recent years.

My own story includes a period signed off work due to depression, followed by a failed return, another period signed off, and another return – going all right so far, touch wood. The process has been characterised by human resources’ obstructionism and selective non-compliance with legal obligations: an apparent attempt to cut me loose from the university.

Applying pressure is the go-to tactic of HR, as well as of management. Workplace adjustments recommended by my GP were systematically refused, sick pay was withheld for absences during my attempt to return to work, and when I succumbed to a second period fully signed off, further pay was withheld in proportion to previous deductions. This obliged me to take on debt to make ends meet, and my wife took on a second job while I languished uselessly at home. Domestic recriminations ensued, and I would be lying if I said that I never wondered about the terms of the university’s death-in-service insurance. But you can’t really ask.

From management’s perspective, you can understand the desire to squeeze out staff members with depression, whose lengthy and expensive periods of sick leave require additional staffing backfill (or not; perhaps everyone can still stretch a little further to cover). A depressive employee is as much a liability as a woman of prime child-bearing age.

While student mental health has been an important topic of debate in the past year, staff mental well-being has received much less attention. With students you have a duty of care. OK, you have a duty of care with staff too, but it’s different. If one of your students dies by suicide, people start asking questions straight away. That hasn't always been true of academics. 

But people are taking notice now, as proved by the recent media attention given to both the Hepi report itself and, last year, the suicide of Cardiff University accountancy academic Malcolm Anderson, who had been asked to mark 418 exams in 20 days. If your mental health prognosis constitutes a disability under the Equality Act 2010 – broadly, having a substantial and long-term effect on your ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities – you even have legal rights.

Management will change their behaviour when the costs of stretching people to breaking point begin to clearly outweigh the benefits. The question is whether the looming mental health time bomb can yet be defused by reducing workplace pressures and workloads.

For the lone staff member struggling with the particular strain of mental illness termed stress-induced depression, Tim Cantopher’s book Depressive Illness: The Curse of the Strong offers an approach to long-term management of the condition that he asserts will prevent recurrence of full breakdown. Cantopher’s thesis is that the most conscientious and capable of us will, when faced with unreasonable demands, dig deep and work ever harder to meet those demands, pushing ourselves to the point at which we burn out and succumb to total collapse. His short-term solution is antidepressants, but, longer term, he says we need to manage what we are willing to take on, generally operating at a level of no more than 80 per cent of our maximum intensity, and pushing ourselves harder only on a short-term and occasional basis to meet temporary exigencies.

While this entails the often difficult task of saying no – and sticking to it – a sustained 80 per cent is clearly a better outcome for our employers, as well as ourselves, than a few months or years of 100 per cent followed by total breakdown. It’s only a shame that we – and they – were all too stupid to realise it much earlier.

The author prefers to remain anonymous.

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Reader's comments (1)

Having watch the transformation of a caring 'personnel' department into (In)Human Resources, along with the appointment of a failed in the 'real world' director of HR whose main attribute was being an 'agent for change', and very anti Trade Unions, the images of gears in heads in the related articles is also how we, the student facing teaching, research and support staff, are now seen. Little more than cogs in the university machine, to be used, abused and when worn out replaced with a newer, cheaper and often less resilient cog freshly turned out by another university machine. A contact who visits Cardiff Uni commented that the "suicide stairwell" as it's now known is well named, how long before all the wonderful waste of space University building atria and stairwells have to be fitted with 'safety netting' like the prisons, to prevent suicide on the premises across the UK?