Too much pressure

Report on higher education staff shows that many are having a hard time. Ella Rhodes reports.

University staff are seeking counselling and occupational health support at staggering levels, according to a Higher Education Policy Institute report. Author Dr Liz Morrish highlighted precarious contracts, spiralling workloads and the use of individual metrics as part of the reason behind the deterioration of mental health among many academics.

The report Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff outlines the result of a Freedom of Information survey of almost 60 universities. This revealed an increase in staff demand for counselling services of 293 per cent, and in referrals to occupational health services of 165 per cent, between 2009 and 2015.

Morrish pointed to a Times Higher Education survey on academics’ work-life balance which found that two fifths of university staff across the world reported working longer hours in the past three years and that academics were twice as likely as professional staff to work 10 or more hours per day. A Times Higher Education article by Professor Gail Kinman is also highlighted, which concluded that university staff experience a greater rate of stress-related illness than police or medical staff.  

In response, many universities have turned to staff wellbeing initiatives or even blamed a lack of resilience. Morrish pointed to a 2018 quote by journalist Emily Reynolds on why this kind of reform appeals to university management. ‘Engaging in any other kind of reform, after all, would require institutions to acknowledge that many mental health problems are rooted in the very structures themselves... One requires workers themselves to be responsible for their mental health; the other requires structural support that simply does not exist.’

Among these structural issues are academic workload and audits. New workload management models allot periods of time to teaching, research and administration at the start of each year until an academic’s annual working time is filled. As Morrish wrote: ‘If staff find that their timetables are filled up to contractual maxima at the start of the year, then it is inevitable that they will end up working well beyond this in terms of hours, and stress is the obvious consequence.’

Morrish also pointed to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) as sources of academic stress. ‘When academics, both individually and collectively, demonstrate with evidence that workloads are too high to be safe, they are told to work smarter. When they complain that many forms of work are erased or under-counted by the workload model… this falls on deaf ears. When academics point to the incapacitating effects of management by metrics, they are told of a need to be accountable.’

Another area of concern Morrish pointed out was outcomes-based performance management. One key driver of this, she wrote, was the REF leading to a much greater focus on individual metrics. ‘There is anecdotal evidence that universities are using performance management and disciplinary procedures more promiscuously and punitively than ever before.’

Metrics in and of themselves are of great concern and Morrish said they are being relied upon as proxies for quality research. Many academics have outlined their scepticism over their use – Morrish pointed out they can only ‘measure the measurable and can be easily gamed or manipulated’. They may also fail to separate different publication practices across fields – while scientists tend to publish journal articles, those in arts and humanities are more likely to write books whose citations are harder to track. Morris also pointed to concerns that metrics used in the TEF are not direct measures of teaching, instead including graduate salaries and student satisfaction scores which tend to disadvantage Black and Minority Ethnic and female lecturers.

Morrish suggested some largely cost-neutral alternative approaches, such as allowing academics a degree of autonomy and trust, with workloads that allow time for ‘scholarly contemplation and experimentation’. ‘A constant theme in interviews with academics is the intensification of workloads and the perpetual requirement to produce more, and faster. Different rates of work and apparent productivity may have little to do with diligence and application, but more about expertise and familiarity, research area and norms of collaborative research or single authorship.’

While those in charge of the REF accept that metrics should be used responsibly and in context, Morrish pointed to the paradox that they still drive promotions, allocation of resources and closures of departments. She also wrote that universities should consider the precarious contracts which are driving away many early-career researchers.

Dr Julie Hulme, a member of the British Psychological Society’s Senate Expert Reference Group and Reader in Psychology at Keele University, said in a statement: ‘We need to be thinking at whole institution level, a whole system approach, not just about students - because individuals and systems very much depend on each other in the area of wellbeing. It’s also worth thinking about the impact of supporting students with mental health challenges on staff.’ 

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