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New report suggests further falls in the wellbeing of university staff

  • 30 April 2020

The Higher Education Policy Institute ( is publishing a new report on the mental health and wellbeing of academic and professional services staff in universities.

Pressure Vessels II: An update on mental health among higher education staff in the UK (HEPI Policy Note 23) by Dr Liz Morrish, a Visiting Fellow at York St John University, and Professor Nicky Priaulx, a Professor of Law at Cardiff University, reveals figures obtained via Freedom of Information requests on demand for counselling and occupational health services.

  • From 2016 to 2018, there was an increase of 16% in counselling at the 14 universities for which comparable time series data were obtained.
  • Over the same period of time, there was a rise of 19% in occupational health referrals at the 16 universities for which comparable time series data were obtained.
  • From 2009/10 to the end of 2017/18, at those five universities reporting complete data, there was a rise of 172% in staff access to counselling.
  • At all 17 universities covered in the report, there has been a rise in staff access to counselling of 155% in recent years.
  • At the 10 universities with data for 2009 to 2018, occupational health referrals rose by 170%.
  • For counselling and occupational health, the figures reflect gender differentiation, with women more highly represented.
  • There is also a pattern corresponding to contract type: for occupational health data, the largest proportion of individuals being referred is non-academic staff.
  • While greater use of support services may reflect improved access, the analysis may also support previous claims about the declining mental health of university staff.

The report builds on HEPI’s earlier ground-breaking work on this issue, published in May 2019 as Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff.

Dr Liz Morrish, the co-author of the report, said:

The first Pressure Vesselsreport was well received by staff who work in higher education. However, some managers and executives appeared unwilling to accept the findings of year-on-year increases in mental health problems. We hope this updated report will confirm our case beyond argument. The current sample of institutions has identified increases in referrals to occupational health and counselling as high as 500% since 2010.

We have also looked at the effect of this climate of workplace stress on staff retention. As we look forward to a future after the Covid-19 pandemic, higher education staff and managers would be unwise to disregard the additional pressures this will bring. Like the virus, workplace stress is here to stay and must be addressed.

Nick Hillman, the Director of HEPI, said:

After the current Covid-19 crisis is over, universities are going to have to pick up the pieces. There will be new challenges in recruiting and keeping students, in managing finances and in delivering research. It is vital that the wellbeing of all staff is considered as these changes occur.

The future success of UK universities mustn’t come at the cost of individuals’ lives. We need to build a virtuous circle by delivering supportive environments that strengthen institutions because they work well for all staff and students, rather than a vicious circle where institutions may succeed in the short term but people’s wellbeing is harmed.

Notes for Editors

  1. The Higher Education Policy Institute was established in 2002 to help shape the higher education debate with evidence. It is the UK’s only independent think tank devoted to higher education. HEPI is a non-partisan charity funded by higher education institutions and other organisations that wish to see a vibrant policy debate.
  2. The data in Pressure Vessels II were obtained by Freedom of Information requests made to 17 universities. These sought to elicit comparable information, notably staff numbers accessing counselling and referrals to occupational health for the 2016/17 and 2017/18 academic years.


  1. While this research was carried out via the FOI requests are only vaguely cited. is only mentioned in this blog post / press release. An advantage of using is it makes it easy to give readers links to raw data.

    I see requests on the subject can be found at:

  2. Nick Hillman says:

    Thanks Richard, It is good to see you engaging with this work. Footnote 8 in the report will also help people who want to see more about the raw data, as it includes links and reads as follows: See the online Infogram appendices provided by the Bumpy Landing Project for visualisations of all 17 HEIs. Appendix 1: cardiff-de-montfort-keele-newcastle-nottingham-trent- bath-bristol-and-cambridge-1hmr6gzg7dlz2nl
    Appendix 2: dundee-exeter-hull-kent-portsmouth-reading-surrey- warwick-and-durham-1h9j6qkd8y1v6gz?live

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