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Stressed? That must be because you work in higher education

Higher education staff in the UK are more stressed than they were four years ago, according to the University and College Union.

A UCU survey, published earlier this month, has found a small overall increase in workload-related stress since 2008. The union also compares its results with a 2008 Health and Safety Executive survey and found, on average, staff working in higher education are more stressed than the general British working population.

The survey asked more than 14,000 UCU members across nearly 100 institutions to rate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements regarding workload-related stress. Included in the eight statements were “I have unachievable deadlines”, “I am pressured to work long hours”, and “different groups at work demand things from me that are hard to combine”.

The responses were measured on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 represents highest stress levels and lowest wellbeing. The average score for respondents was 2.51, compared with 3.65 for the general working population. In 2008, the average score was 2.61.

“For professional staff in higher education, there is a sense that the job is never finished,” says Stephen Court, a spokesman for the UCU. “In teaching, student numbers have greatly expanded. There is greater pressure on academics to be constantly available through electronic media. The huge increase this year in tuition fees—together with the National Student Survey and other performance data in the key information set—bring growing pressure on academics to deliver.”

Demands on the research side of the job are also growing, adds Court. “The census for the Research Excellence Framework is approaching and the performance bar has been raised in terms of the standard expected for publications,” he says. “Funding cuts followed by the shifting of funding of teaching from the state to the student, mean there is more pressure to bring in income from research and international students.”

The UCU report classifies institutions into four groups, based on mean stress scores. Among the 20 lowest-scoring, most-stressed institutions are the universities of Birmingham, Exeter and Glasgow. However, most institutions with high stress scores are post-1992 institutions.

Ian Benson, who runs AcademicFOI.com, which carried out an investigation into bullying at UK higher education institutions in 2011, says “There’s no doubt that if you work in a former polytechnic, they are sweating the whole thing for money.” Some newer institutions are more like businesses than some of the older institutions in the UK, he adds. “A lot of people would say, well, that’s what higher education needed. But when you actually see that in practice, it’s not as appealing as it might have sounded.”

By contrast, seven of the 20 best performers are Russell Group universities, including Cambridge, Oxford and Edinburgh. Birkbeck, University of London, and the Open University also fared well. “If you work in a Russell Group university, you’re probably left alone to do your job to a greater extent,” suggested Benson. However, even the 20 least-stressed institutions had worse stress scores than the national working average.

The survey also ranked institutions by the percentage of respondents saying they worked more than 50 hours a week. The University of East London was the worst for this, with 53.7 per cent of respondents saying they work more than 50 hours a week. The Open University came out best at only 15.7 per cent.

However, David Coombe, Conference Director at the Association for Research Managers and Administrators, says there is evidence from the survey that stress levels do not necessarily correlate with longer working hours.

Although the UCU had a large number of responses from some institutions, it had much smaller samples from others. Oxford Brookes University, for example, scored badly on working hours but when contacted by Research Fortnight a spokesman said that only a tiny percentage of its staff took part in the survey. The institution’s own records are more positive about stress, he says.