Regrettably, concerns about the mounting stress levels experienced by staff working in higher education is not new. The report, ‘Pressure point: a survey, into the causes and consequences of occupational stress in UK academic and related staff.’ by Gail Kinman (1998), identified work overload, long working hours as the results of staff taking on additional roles, often with conflicting priorities. At the time, the report predicted, that this rising pressure would likely increase in the future. The report findings concluded with a summary of staff views on what should happen to improve their levels of stress. These included, the focus on the presence of a more open, empathic and skilled management able to control workload, so that staff could be empowered to create and maintain firmer boundaries between the workplace and home.
To what extent, has this been achieved? If anything, the recent HEPI report shows we have fallen far short of the mark. Liz Morrish’s (HEPI) report, ‘Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff’, draws our attention back to the worrying decline in the mental health of staff working in higher education. The data gleaned from Freedom of Information Requests (FOIs), during 2009-2016, from 59 higher education intuitions shows progressive surges in staff referrals to counselling and occupational health services. Although, it is recognised that the information provided by FOIs will be limited by the type of data the organisation routinely collates, Liz’s report provides helpful insight into the factors that are hindering the mental health of staff, including excessive workloads, reduced job security, a performance management culture, often driven by targets and audit driven requirements. Findings from my own recent research, give further support to these thoughts. As part of my study, I sent a survey to staff working in universities, during October to December 2018 and they were given the opportunity to comment on the future of staff wellbeing in higher education and about what could be done to support staff wellbeing. The following comments represent a summary of the most cited observations:
- Cultural Shift. There is need to prioritise staff wellbeing, beyond the current rhetoric in universities. We need a commitment to tackling incidents of bullying, increasing workloads, poor management and environments that promote the narrative of staff merely as, ‘a cost and not an asset’.
- Increasing work pressures. University environments are increasingly requiring staff to undertake more work. Without a strong leadership team and a compassionate leader, with realistic expectations about staff workloads, the current ‘toxic working environment’, will see more staff leaving universities. The future wellbeing of staff will continue to be compromised, impacting negatively on the mental health of staff currently working in higher education. As one staff member stated:
‘All I can see are staff around me becoming very ill – work stress related illness. It is powerful and impossible to not see how we will all not experience burnout at some point.’
Mental health is a concern for universities, but it often focuses on the wellbeing of students to the detriment of staff experiences. As a respondent to the survey stated:
‘My university expresses concern with staff mental health but the overwhelming focus is on students. Overall wellbeing is not seen as significant at a strategic level and I don’t see that changing in the near future. It will take them long enough to get to grips with mental health let alone anything else.’
My own research into staff wellbeing in higher education, used freedom of information requests from November 2018 to May 2019. A total of 136 letters were sent to higher education institutions, one of the questions asked sought to understand the number of referrals received by universities where staff wellbeing was predominately the reason for requesting services. The responses received indicate that during the year 2017/18, between 5 and 239 referrals were recorded from the institutions that responded. The take up of services (such as counselling or occupational health) to support staff wellbeing in the sector is variable. In some cases, universities indicated that this information was not routinely recorded or available. Further discussions are required to understand the factors behind these figures.
As part of the Freedom of Information request, universities were also asked to provide a copy of the university policy available to support staff wellbeing. The result showed that less than 11 per cent of the 136 universities that responded had an explicit policy to support staff wellbeing at the time of the study. There is perhaps a need for more universities to take a more strategic approach to staff wellbeing, where staff are involved in shaping their working contexts, and are valued and seen as both essential and capable of building flourishing communities in higher education.
There will be an opportunity to hear more about staff wellbeing in higher education at a conference, Building Flourishing Communities: Strategies and good practice for promoting staff wellbeing in HE, on 16th of July 10:00 am – 4:30 pm. Book your ticket here
For further information about my research findings and the conference please contact Vida Douglas, Professional Lead for Social Work at University of Hertfordshire at [email protected]