Stress is rife throughout universities

Rightly, student mental health is often now making headline news, with the need for better provision for students' well-being as they move from home to university settings, throughout their time at university and in response to the demands and expectations upon them.  Sometimes forgotten in all this is the fact that university staff - academic, research and administrative staff - also suffer from stress, anxiety, depression and a host of other mental health issues.  Suicides are not unknown among staff where they have experienced intolerable pressure.

Staff are subject to their own set of particular stress factors (stressors), especially excessive workloads (>75% of HE staff say their job is stressful [*]). The next Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2021 is a key one for academic and research staff, especially for those seeking to gain promotion or further develop their career as a research-active academic, along with expectations of generating large research income.  Similarly the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcome Framework (TEF) adds another potential concern for staff as students are increasingly being seen as 'customers' and their feedback becomes instrumental in shaping how teaching is delivered and how staff progress.

For administrative and technical staff it can often be the lack of staff capacity to deal with mounting administrative demands from above that is the problem, as more and more responsibility is handed down the chain from high level University management to Schools and Departments, e.g. administering and supporting more and more students on courses with no extra staff resources. Or upwards, dealing with demands from the Government's Office for Students.  Or it might be dealing with research funding applications dropped on you by academic and research staff at the last minute when the system is simply not designed for instant response.  Why can't academics understand the concept of deadlines and lead-in times!  They set them for their students or own research staff!  But as with opera singers, some 'high-flying' academics can also be prima donnas and seem to expect others to jump at the click of a finger.

Why do we seem to accept that we should all have 'too much work'?  Why has the culture in universities not recognised that there are better ways to manage work load?  The REF and TEF, unfortunately, are mirroring one of the key causes of stress and anxiety in students - league tables.  School league tables (and Government policy) have driven schools - understandably, but unforgivably - to become 'exam factories' where students are churned through to enhance the school's performance.  Whatever happened to the 'love of learning'? Little wonder students get anxious or depressed as external validation becomes the driving force for their own sense of self-worth.  REF has already done this for research in universities, where individual academics are compared on arbitrary and inappropriate criteria, ignoring other attributes they might have.  TEF is promoted as trying, in part, to address this by making sure that good teachers - who may not perform seemingly so well against research criteria - are recognised for their teaching performance.  But in the long term this is more likely to just create another set of league tables that the institution will seek to game.  Buying in 'REF-able' high-flyers has been a common practice for research performance (for those universities that can afford it). The same is happening with TEF as universities shift people to teaching only contracts (and to avoid poorer REF outcomes).  And, of course, work stress, whatever the source, can simply exacerbate existing mental health concerns - e.g. associated with anxiety, depression, low self-worth, insomnia, financial worries, relationship or sexual identity issues, etc.

So we need a fully rounded approach to mental health in our universities, and a recognition that as institutions they should be centres of learning, betterment and well-being for all of society, including those within their walls - staff and students alike.


Bill Sheate, 6 July 2018


[*] UCU workload surveys at