Far from being a genteel world of ‘dreaming spires’, working in higher education these days is marred by high-intensity demands and workloads, long hours, precarious and casual contracts and, as a result, stress, anxiety, mental ill health and isolation. A recent event discussed what can be done. Nic Paton reports.
“I am scared to access anything that might show I am struggling.” So said one university employee in response to a recent survey by the charity Education Support, in the process highlighting just how deeply entrenched, and worrying, stigma and ‘stiff upper lip’ around mental ill health remains within higher education.
The common ‘dreaming spires’ perception that working within higher education institutions (HEIs) is a rarefied, privileged, even cloistered life of gowns, high table and ‘tenure’, interspersed by the occasional languid seminar (perhaps sprawled on the grass in a sunny quadrangle), has long disappeared, if it ever truly existed.
In its place, a career in higher education, it is clear, is increasingly one of high-intensity demands and workloads, long hours, precarious contracts and casualised working, even to the extent of academics (often early-career PhD students) being forced to live in tents to make ends meet.
The Education Support study written by Dr Siobhan Wray, associate professor of organisational behaviour at Lincoln University and Professor Gail Kinman, visiting professor of occupational health psychology at Birkbeck, University of London, also highlighted widespread overwork and burnout; stress, depression and anxiety; unsupportive management; and a lack of access to support, even where such support is available. And all made worse by the scouring experience of Covid-19 over the past two years.
‘Nationally significant’ discussion
To try to work out how occupational health practitioners should be responding to this challenging picture, SOM (the Society of Occupational Medicine) in November brought together academics, practitioners, universities, health and safety experts and unions to discuss occupational health and wellbeing for university staff.
Stress in academia
The virtual conference was chaired by Nicola Neath, chair of the Council for Work and Health’s mental health group as well as a workplace counsellor at Leeds University. “Thinking about wellbeing and health has never been more nationally significant,” she highlighted.
Nevertheless, wellbeing provision and support did vary up and down the country, she conceded. “What will surely become true is that those institutions that understand and hold their part in wellbeing and the mental health of staff will be prizing their greatest asset, their people,” she pointed out.
Professor Kinman ran through the key findings from the Education Support research, highlighting that the charity has been monitoring mental health within the sector since the mid-1990s.
Rising student/staff ratios, increased expectations, intensifying workloads, reduced collegiality, increased casualisation, and the pandemic were all fuelling what was a growing problem within the sector, she highlighted.
“It used to be thought that working in a university was a low-stress environment. Collegiality etc was a very supportive type of environment and people had a lot of role flexibility. But we know more recently that there has been rapid and very wide-ranging change,” she said.
“We know also that working hours, even though they are increasing, it is the intensification and the demands that people have to fulfil in these working hours. So the job itself is becoming much more intense.
“There is an increasing reliance on customer service metrics, not only from student satisfaction but also judgement of the quality of people’s teaching and research in these league tables.
“We know also managerialism has been increasing. People have been reporting that they feel less control and influence over the job that they do. Reduced collegiality and increased competition between institutions for students and research funding, and also between individuals sometimes as well.
“We know also that the job has become increasingly casualised. It is not only academics that are often in insecure contracts but also support staff as well. Finally, the pandemic has increased problems for everybody. But there is some evidence that workload has increased, resources have reduced and support has also been challenged during this time,” Professor Kinman added.
During the pandemic, about half of the study’s participants had been showing signs of mental health problems. People had been reporting low energy, confidence and optimism, difficulties relaxing and switching off, and of feeling socially isolated.
There were growing concerns about ‘role creep’ and sickness presenteeism (with 79% reporting working while ill, at least sometimes, even occasionally from a hospital bed), of work-life interference, of an increasing effort/reward imbalance, of people feeling under pressure of work, of leaving work undone, of feeling guilt, obligation and insecurity.
Yet, at the same time, given how difficult it can be to carve out a career in academia, and how long it takes to do this through a PhD, then research and often temporary ‘associate’ roles, it also needed to be recognised that many working in this field also felt a strong commitment to their job, a duty to continue working and enjoyment of their role. “So it is a very complex picture, but we do know that presenteeism can challenge people’s wellbeing,” said Professor Kinman.
Availability of health and wellbeing support
Dr Wray then addressed some of the questions posed by the research around the availability and usefulness of health and wellbeing support. She ran through what participants had said were the most and least effective forms of support, and also most and least available, as the tables below show.
“It is really interesting that the most helpful form of support, with 92% agreeing it would be helpful or very helpful, is feeling respected,” Dr Wray said. The most effective interventions, she concluded, tended to be organisational rather than individual, in other words those focused around actually changing the reality, or easing pressures, on the ground.
However, there was often a disconnect between what support was technically available and what support was available in reality, with participants reporting long waiting lists for counselling and EAPs, a lack of local provision or provision that was unavailable at times suitable to teaching and other commitments.
Line managers, too, were often under significant pressure and workload, which both hindered their ability to facilitate support and sometimes meant academic staff would not come forward for fear of ‘bothering’ a hard-pressed colleague. Stigma or fear of being seen as ‘weak’ or of having your career somehow ‘marked’ were often common barriers to accessing support cited by participants to the study.
One of the other issues when it comes to variability of provision is, potentially, variability of spend on occupational health. Dr Wray highlighted a recent SOM freedom of information request on university spending on occupational health and wellbeing from 2015.
Of 133 UK higher education institutions contacted, data was received back from 37, with 97 not providing any data. The spend ranged from £11,568 to £1.53m, “so a massive, massive range”, pointed out Dr Wray.
However, it was difficult to draw too many hard-and-fast conclusions from this, such as whether this meant OH spending was adequate or inadequate. “It is very hard to disaggregate what that means,” Dr Wray said. “Organisational size differs massively across the sector. The £11,500 figure, for example, comes from an incredibly small organisation, which might explain its low spend. But we also need clarity on what high spend means. Does it mean there are excellent resources in place? Or does it mean that people are requiring specialist help more often?”
What should OH be doing?
The key question in all this, of course, is: what can occupational health as a profession, and individual occupational health practitioners, do here?
Having organisational, collaborative discussions and co-produce work around what happens in your organisation is absolutely key.” – Dr Siobhan Wray
The report, for example, outlined an array of recommendations (more than 40) around workplace culture, managing workload, psychological support and counselling, support from managers, wellbeing and work-life balance, social support and national support initiatives.
Some of these were pretty broad and self-evident (‘prioritising staff wellbeing’ for example). Others were more practical, such as ensuring there is psychological support for staff who feel isolated when working from home and that universities should have in place a ‘toolbox’ of individual support initiatives to facilitate physical, mental and working health.
But taking a multi-level, multidisciplinary, genuinely collaborative approach needed to be very much the way forward, emphasised Dr Wray. “The data does tell us there is a requirement to tackle this in a multi-level way; and those levels need to be integrated. We need change at the organisational level.”
UK HEIs needed to work harder to change and improve their culture, their active organisational monitoring, their reporting and actioning of risk, and their collaborative discussions, she contended.
“We think esteem, conversations, input into decision-making are all really important for staff who responded to the survey. So, having organisational, collaborative discussions and co-produce work around what happens in your organisation is absolutely key,” she said.
“Yes, there is some stuff about line manager training and support but, again, that needs to tie into the primary level. We can train line managers to be effective at managing stress in organisations but only if they have the power to action change in the areas required.
“Obviously, we need to have the options in place for people to access support regularly that is appropriate for the roles they are in and is appropriate being a member of staff in that area.
“I talk a lot about examples where counselling is shared between staff and students, and staff will often be sitting in a waiting room at the same time, so that is something we need to think about. In fact, there is a lot to think about as we move forward,” Dr Wray added.
What Education Support study concluded
The report, Supporting staff wellbeing in higher education, by Education Support, surveyed 2,046 academic and academic-related staff on the psychosocial hazards they encountered in their work.
Worryingly, more than three-quarters (78%) strongly disagreed or disagreed that the psychological health of employees within their university or HE institution was is considered as important as productivity.
Workload demand and intensity was found to give ‘serious cause’ for concern, with 79% of respondents reporting they need to work very intensively often or always, and over half (52%) experiencing unrealistic time pressures often or always.
Just a third (29%) achieved scores indicating ‘average’ wellbeing, with more than half (53%) showing signs of probable depression.
Remove the cause of the problem (too much work) rather than fighting a losing battle to mitigate the symptoms (the resultant stress)” – a respondent to the Education Support survey
Many respondents were showing signs of burnout, with nearly a third (29%) saying they felt ‘emotionally drained’ from their work at the end of each.
More than a third (36%) said they always, or almost always, neglected their personal needs because of demands of their work, with more than a quarter (28%) reported missing important personal activities as a result.
Just as concerning from an OH perspective was the extent of stigma around mental ill health.
More than half of those polled (59%) feared they would be seen as ‘weak’ if they sought support for their wellbeing, just over seven out of ten agreed (41%) or strongly agreed (30%) this would harm their career.
Nearly two-third (61%) of respondents would not approach their manager for support, as they believed they did not have the necessary skills or knowledge to help.
Alongside stigma, it was generally felt there was little information on what support was available, difficulty in with access, both in terms of location and timing, and interventions that were not fit for purpose.
Academic staff on rolling, often precarious, contracts generally reported lower levels of wellbeing, greater stigmatisation around mental health issues, and greater risk of burnout.
Covid-19 had amplified and exacerbated these pre-existing pressures and problems within the sector, the study found.
The pandemic had increased workload and working hours and academics had reported feeling isolated when working from home and having little support while working online. Many had also felt a greater need to be supporting the health and wellbeing of students, even while not being able to manage their own effective.
As highlighted at the beginning of the article, the level of jadedness, cynicism and, in some cases, fear in some of the comments from respondents was also telling, if worrying in the context of mental health.
“I feel my institution plays lip service to support initiatives; so many are in place but often they are ineffective and/or there is no real commitment to the values that are essential to their success,” said one respondent.
“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,” said another.
“Remove the cause of the problem (too much work) rather than fighting a losing battle to mitigate the symptoms (the resultant stress),” agreed a further respondent.
“The provision of support, across all these areas, is of limited use when there is a climate of work that valorises long hours, weekend working, not taking holidays and coming to work whilst sick. This is a culture endemic in higher education and is worn as a badge of honour by senior staff and those wishing to gain promotion. Universities have endless policies on work life balance, equality, mental health awareness, etc. but the actual working culture mitigates against all of them,” added another.
As part of the online event, Vincent King, chair of the Universities Safety and Health Association (USHA), and head of health and safety at City University, London, outlined a range of the resources, toolkits and guides to support health and safety within higher education.
This included USHA’s ‘Guidance for managing work-related stress within the higher education sector’, which, among other things, highlighted the need for a “whole-university approach”, he emphasised.
The association’s ‘Leadership and management of health and safety in higher education institutions’ was also well-respected within the sector. King also highlighted a recent resources by the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association, ‘Stress and mental wellbeing resources for Higher Education Institutions’.
This document, developed in conjunction with sector trade unions, had been first developed in June 2018 but updated throughout the pandemic, first in July and then in November 2020.
Of the Education Support survey, King argued that, because it was based on a relatively small sample, it was hard to say whether it was representative of the sector as a whole. However, he conceded: “It is hard to see that there is not an issue somewhere.”
Long Covid case study
Finally, Dr Jo Bishton, head of diversity, equality and inclusion, including responsibility for wellbeing at the University of Derby, provided an HR perspective but also outlined the top reasons generally within the sector for calling an EAP. These were, first, mental health, then legal, work, relationships, and physical health.
She addressed the impact of the pandemic and, subsequently, the shift to more hybrid home/office working models, illustrating it through the use of a case study of an employee who developed long Covid.
This had meant they were off work for a considerable and extended period of time. “It took many, many months to get that member of staff to the point where they could consider returning to work,” she pointed out. A phased return initially of just a few hours a day was agreed, gradually building from there, over, as she highlighted, “countless months down the line and numerous OH reviews and GP notes later.”
Dr Bishton added: “The manager had maintained good face-to-face conduct with the individual throughout their period of absence. They learnt to recognise the signs of fatigue, panic and emotional overload; some of those subtle changes that the individual was experiencing. But signalled to the line manager when they were talking to them that an intervention was needed at that point.
“It [the phased return] was there to orientate and maximise recovery time for the individual and gave freedom of expression to be creative. But it also gave that momentum to complete tasks and to gain work satisfaction. It also enabled them to remain to work remotely, which managed their anxiety about coming into contact with Covid again when being around large numbers of people.
“Instead of that return-to-work conversation becoming a tick-box exercise, the plan became an agreement between the manager and employee which was framed around the emotional safety and wellbeing of the individual,” Dr Bishton concluded.
Supporting staff wellbeing in higher education, Education Support, https://www.educationsupport.org.uk/media/x4jdvxpl/es-supporting-staff-wellbeing-in-he-report.pdf
‘Guidance for managing work-related stress within the higher education sector’, USHA, 2020, https://www.usha.org.uk/images/stories/files/covid-19/USHA_Stress-Management-Guidance_July-2020.pdf
‘Leadership and management of health and safety in higher education institutions’, USHA, 2015, https://www.usha.org.uk/images/THE_MASTER_-_USHA_final_rev_7.10.2015._WORD.pdf
‘Stress and mental wellbeing resources for Higher Education Institutions’, Universities and Colleges Employers Association, November 2020, https://www.ucea.ac.uk/library/publications/Stress-and-mental-wellbeing-resources-for-Higher-Education-Institutions/