Mental health and burnout are rife within UK universities, with the higher education sector failing to meet minimum standards for psychosocial risk. Dr Siobhan Wray and Professor Gail Kinman take a deep dive into the findings of their wide-ranging study, which highlights the health needs of university staff.
This article reports on a national survey examining working life in UK universities. The survey focused on the psychosocial hazards associated with work (Cousins et al, 2004), the psychosocial safety climate (Dollard & King, 2007), the support available to support workers and the levels of mental health, burnout and work-life conflict associated with work.
Evidence suggests that the wellbeing of academic staff has deteriorated over time. Three surveys of university staff in the UK, undertaken between 2008 and 2014, used the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) management standards indicator tool to assess levels of psychosocial hazards (demands, control, manager and peer support, relationships, role, and change) and compare against benchmarks.
Across all hazard categories, university staff experienced greater hazard exposure than the HSE benchmark. Furthermore, job demands, manager and peer support failed to reach the fifth percentile of the HSE’s benchmark in any of the three waves of data collected.
Comparisons across three waves identified significant increases in the hazards associated with job demands, control, relationships, role and change. Whilst control has remained relatively high in university staff, this domain has seen a significant negative trend over time (Wray and Kinman, 2020).
Mental health, assessed using the General Health Questionnaire, was poor in all waves with six out of 10 respondents meeting “caseness” levels of psychological distress. These findings are supported by work undertaken by Morrish (2019) which examined the level of referrals to counselling and occupational health services in UK universities between 2006 and 2019. These referrals, which increased three or four-fold in some institutions, suggests an escalation in the incidence of mental health issues.
Aims of the study
Whilst there is strong evidence to suggest that UK university staff are struggling with high demands and low resources, and that mental health in particular is an area of concern, little is known about the support they need to improve the nature of their work or their wellbeing. This study, commissioned by the Education Support Partnership, aimed to examine the working lives of UK university staff and to investigate the support services available.
Respondents were presented with 47 potential sources of support that may be provided by their institutions. These covered a range of different areas: work/home interface and recovery; support for health and wellbeing; counselling, coaching and guidance; stress management training; social support and working relationships; managing workload and pressure; reducing inequalities, tackling bullying and external professional support. We asked participants to rate each source of support twice – once indicating if the type of support was available and then again to rate how helpful they would find each type of support (1 – not at all helpful; 5 – very helpful).
Additionally, the study examined stigma associated with accessing support at work. This was measured using a scale developed by Britt et al (2008) to assess whether individuals perceived barriers to accessing support. The original scale was supplemented with three sector-specific questions developed for the study.
Psychosocial safety climate (Dollard & Kang, 2007) examines the extent to which respondents believe their organisation has appropriate policies, procedures, and practices in place to protect the psychological wellbeing of their staff. This is a particularly relevant measure considering recent ISO guidance (ISO 45003) and guidance developed by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence which both highlight the importance of employer responsibilities around the monitoring, management, and strategic leadership of employee mental wellbeing. Previous research has indicated that poor psychosocial safety climate is linked to higher risk of job strain and depressive symptoms (Bailey et al, 2015).
The HSE’s management standards indicator tool (Cousins et al, 2004) was used to measure key psychosocial hazards and compare these with previous studies and national standards.
Illegitimate tasks (Semmer et al, 2010) are defined as tasks that respondents consider unreasonable – in that they are extant to their occupational role, or unnecessary. For example, the re-entering of data because two computer systems are incompatible.
Finally, the study measured mental health using the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (Stewart-Brown et al, 2008); burnout (Maslach burnout inventory, Maslach et al, 1996) to assess the core aspects of burnout (emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and personal accomplishment and work-life balance (Fisher et al, 2009).
Findings: the wellbeing of university staff
Some 2,046 university staff responded to the survey, 86% of whom worked in academic roles. Most respondents worked full time (79%) and were in permanent employment (80.4%).
Sixty-two per cent reported working more than 40 hours per week, and 21% reported working in excess of 50 hours. Academic staff reported working longer than academic related staff, with 21% reporting working an extra 16 hours per week – equivalent to two extra working days. Just under half (44%) said that they felt pressured to work long hours often or always.
Psychosocial safety climate
Psychosocial safety climate (PSC) assesses how well an organisation manages psychological health and safety. Results can be compared against international benchmarks, where scores of 37 or below indicates “high risk” – where employees are at greater risk of job strain and depressive symptoms (Bailey et al, 2015). In this survey, the means score for PSC was 25.89, suggesting that the risks for higher education employees in the UK is high.
Furthermore, 71% of respondents strongly disagreed or disagreed with the statement: “Senior management show support for stress prevention through involvement and commitment.” Three-quarters did not agree that senior managers considered the psychological health of employees as equivalently important as productivity (77.5%); that psychological wellbeing of staff was a priority (70.9%); that communication around psychological safety was good (72.5%) or that senior managers take prompt action to address problems affecting employees’ psychological health (69.1%).
These results suggest that the psychological safety climate in universities is poor, and respondents do not feel that senior management teams are engaged in activities to promote a psychologically safe climate.
The management standards indicator tool utilises a risk assessment approach to work-related stress, where stress is seen as a significant threat to the health of employees. These workplace threats are then assessed against benchmarks set by the HSE to determine the level of threat associated with key hazards (Cousins et al, 2004). In this study, psychological hazards were assessed across six of the seven domains and compared with the HSE benchmark data (see table below). The data from this survey was collected during the Covid pandemic, therefore the final hazard category assessing the management of change was not included. It was felt that during the pandemic organisations‘ ability to manage change was greatly reduced.
The table shows that with the exception of control, all hazard categories failed to meet the HSE benchmark, and all fell into the bottom 20th percentile of mean scores, indicating an “urgent need for action”. This indicates that university staff are at considerable risk from high job demands, low support, role, and poor relationships at work. Comparisons with previous surveys in the sector (Wray and Kinman, 2021) indicate that there has been little change in these hazard categories over time.
Unnecessary tasks were of significant importance to university staff. Nearly two-thirds of respondents indicated that they “often” or “frequently” undertook tasks that would not exist or could be completed more easily if they were organised differently (69.1%) and tasks that exist “simply because some people demand it this way” (68.1%). These results suggest that university staff may struggle to understand the relevance of certain tasks to their job and consider some tasks unnecessary or overcomplicated because of the way that they are organised.
Support and stigma
Working from home was identified as the key source of support available to staff with 86% of respondents indicating that this was helpful or very helpful. It was also the source of support perceived to be most available to university staff with 86% indicating that this was available to them. Other forms of support that were most commonly available included support from trade unions; training on and clear policies around equality, diversity and inclusion; occupational health and other support for wellbeing; and peer support from colleagues.
Sources of support that were least available were associated with organisational policies and procedures, specifically only 15% of staff indicated that they had a workplace stress policy that was clear and accessible, that stress risk assessments were regularly undertaken (14%) and that steps were taken to manage workload and pressure (8%).
Conversely, the sources of support that were considered most helpful for wellbeing were at the organisational level and included managing workload and pressure at source, developing a culture of openness that normalises conversations about stress and managing timetabling to ensure opportunities for adequate breaks and recovery. Sources of support aimed at the individual level were considered the least helpful and included guidance on personal issues and stress management training. Qualitative comments from respondents further highlighted these issues:
“Individual interventions such as mindfulness and relaxation will not help when we are working 100 hours a week and still can’t meet our deadlines.”
“I am cynical about all types of support, as those offered are individualised ‘sticking plasters’, rather than representing real change that would make a difference for staff.”
Qualitative comments also suggested that some respondents felt that when wellbeing audits were undertaken, results were not disseminated or failed to address the issues raised:
“Make sure that the results of staff surveys are actually communicated and acted upon rather than implementing yet more tokenistic wellbeing initiatives that will make no difference.”
The results regarding availability and helpfulness of sources of support suggest a disconnect between what is seen as available and what is perceived as helpful.
In addition to the availability of helpful sources of support, the survey found that there may be significant stigma associated with seeking support for work-related stress and mental health problems in UK universities. Fifty-nine per cent of respondents indicated that they were concerned that they would be seen as weak if they sought help for stress or mental health problems and over 70% believed that it would harm their career.
Additionally, 61% of respondents indicated that they would not approach their manager for support because they did not have the knowledge or skills required to provide support. Again, these reservations were reflected in comments from respondents:
I am cynical about all types of support, as those offered are individualised ‘sticking plasters’, rather than representing real change that would make a difference for staff.” – survey respondent
“I don’t trust my local management not to try and use against me any difficulties that I did highlight.”
“The line manager is often the problem, so talking to them about your wellbeing then becomes either a massive ‘no-no’ or makes the matter worse.”
Mental wellbeing, burnout, and work-life balance
The WEMWBS (Warwick Edinburgh Mental Well Being Scale) assesses and individual’s psychological functioning, ability to forge relationships and their overall satisfaction with life (Stewart-Brown et al, 2008). This summed score can then be compared against population benchmarks. In this survey the average mean score for the sample (39.86) was much lower than population norms. Only 29.4% of respondents scored 45 or above, indicating average wellbeing, whereas 53.2% scored 40 or below indicating probable depression.
With reference to burnout, levels of emotional exhaustion were high, with 65.3% reporting that they felt emotionally drained from their work at least once a week, and 28.6 % reporting feeling like this daily. However, depersonalisation was less prevalent with the majority of respondents indicating that they felt desensitised to peoples needs only once a month or less. Levels of personal accomplishment were moderate, with 56.2% indicating that they deal effectively with the problems of other people they work with once a month or less.
Few respondents indicated that their work life rarely (12%) or never (2%) interferes with their personal life, whilst 69% reported that they often (or always) come home from work too tired to do things that they would like to do. Little evidence was found for work to life enrichment with less than 10% indicating that their job gave them the energy for pursue important activities outside of work.
Relationship between working environment and wellbeing
Finally, we examined the associations between the measures of the working environment (working hours, psychosocial hazards, psychosocial safety climate and illegitimate tasks and sources of support) and wellbeing (mental health, burnout, and work-life balance).
Longer working hours were associated with higher job demands and lower levels of control, support (manger and peer), role and working relationships. This was associated with poorer perceptions of the psychosocial safety climate at work, higher levels of self-reported mental health problems, burnout, and greater conflict between work and personal life.
Higher levels of psychosocial hazards were associated with a range of outcomes. Hazards associated with role, demands, peer support and control were strong predictors of burnout and mental health problems. Additionally, these factors plus hazards associated with relationships were associated with greater work-life conflict.
Those who reported undertaking illegitimate tasks regularly were at greater risk of mental health problems and work-life conflict.
Finally, respondents reporting higher levels of mental health problems and burnout were more likely to report poorer perceptions of psychosocial safety climate in their organisation and were more likely to report that seeking support for mental health problems was highly stigmatised.
Conclusions of our study
The findings from the report indicate that working hours across higher education remain high and that psychosocial hazards in the sector continue to fail to meet the HSE’s minimum standards. The psychosocial safety climate within UK universities is considerably lower than in studies of other organisations. Levels of self-reported mental health and burnout are higher than reported population norms and work-life conflict remains high.
Whilst universities in the UK offer a range of support services for staff, these are often perceived to be unfit for purpose or fail to address systemic issues. Additionally, stigma around accessing support for mental health is a significant issue in the sector.
These findings provide evidence for a strategic examination of working practices within UK universities, with senior teams working closely with staff to develop and implement effective policies, procedures, practices, and interventions to promote and imbed employee wellbeing.
Bailey, T. S., Dollard, M. F., McLinton, S. S., & Richards, P. A. (2015). Psychosocial safety climate, psychosocial and physical factors in the aetiology of musculoskeletal disorder symptoms and workplace injury compensation claims. Work & Stress, 29(2), 190-211.
Britt, T.W., Greene–Shortridge, T.M., Brink, S., Nguyen, Q.B., Rath, J., Cox, A.L., Hoge, C.W. and Castro, C.A. (2008). ‘Perceived stigma and barriers to care for psychological treatment: Implications for reactions to stressors in different contexts’. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 27(4), pp.317-335.
Cousins, R., Mackay, C.J., Clarke, S.D., Kelly, C., Kelly, P.J. and McCaig, R.H. (2004).
‘Management standards’ work-related stress in the UK: Practical development’. Work and Stress, 18(2), pp.113-136.
Dollard, M.F. and Kang, S. (2007). ‘Psychosocial safety climate measure’. Work & Stress Research Group. University of South Australia, Adelaide.
Dougall, I., Weick, M. and Vasiljevic, M. (2021). Inside UK Universities: Staff mental health and wellbeing during the coronavirus pandemic. PsyArXiv. June, 22. europepmc.org/article/ppr/ppr360395
Fisher, G.G., Bulger, C.A. and Smith, C.S. (2009). ‘Beyond work and family: a measure of work/nonwork interference and enhancement’. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 14(4), p.441-456.
Maslach, C., Jackson, S.E. and Leiter, M.P. (1996). MBI: Maslach Burnout Inventory. Sunnyvale, CA: CPP, Incorporated.
Morrish, L. (2019). ‘Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff.’ HEPI Occasional Paper 20. Higher Education Policy Institute.
Semmer, N.K., Tschan, F., Meier, L.L., Facchin, S. and Jacobshagen, N. (2010). ‘Illegitimate tasks and counterproductive work behavior’. Applied Psychology, 59(1), pp.70-96.
Stewart-Brown, S. and Janmohamed, K. (2008). Warwick-Edinburgh mental well-being scale. User guide. Version, 1.
Wray, S. and Kinman, G., 2020. The psychosocial hazards of academic work: an analysis of trends. Studies in Higher Education, pp.1-12. doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2020.1793934