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”.

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