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Why are UK academics stressed?

More than half (55 percent) of higher education professionals report feeling stressed. Source: AFP/Andy Buchanan

The mental health crisis on campus in traditional study abroad destinations often focuses on students. But two new research reports on wellbeing in universities reveal that it’s a problem significantly afflicting teaching staff, too.

More than half (55 percent) of higher education professionals reported feeling stressed, according to the first survey by polling company YouGov. Close to four in 10 had considered leaving the sector in the past two years as a result of growing health pressures.

In the other qualitative study, it was found that academics often feel anxious and isolated. Other prominent themes in their responses focused on “bad management” and “the consumer model”. Some of the comments that illuminate the matter:

  • “Over the last 15 years I have seen things change a great deal – fear, an attack on
    autonomy, erosion of trust, isolation is now the norm.”
  • “Managers should be building, leading…instead, the bad ones are simply destroying. Destroying people, I’m serious here. We no longer feel trusted.”
  • “You have to do all you can to keep student numbers high. Otherwise, next year one of
    your colleagues might lose their job.”

Previous research have found academia to be a profession with a higher risk of developing mental health disorders. More than a third (37 percent) of academics have common mental health disorders. Burnout is frequent and at a level comparable to ‘high-risk’ groups like healthcare workers.

According to the systematic review of published work on researchers’ well-being, it found that the major factors afflicting the health of higher education staff are the lack of job security, limited support from management and the weight of work-related demands.

  • The latest report identified similar concerns. The main reasons for negative wellbeing were “management approaches that prioritised accountability measures and executive tasks over teaching, learning and research tasks”. Some reported being split between “valuing money from student intake over providing high quality of teaching.

“This was seen as disassociating what participants want to focus on – and what they came into the profession for – from what administrators want to focus on,” said the report .

Speaking to The Guardian, Dennis Guiney, educational psychologist and co-author of the study, explains: “Lack of collegiality was a big concern for the academics we spoke to. Rather than focusing solely on money, they felt university managers should be building this. Academics need to feel valued. Praise is important.”

Guiney hits on a recurring theme in academics’ responses on how positively impacts their wellbeing. Positive management is described as a key influence. Examples provided include the setting of achievable or meaningful targets, valuing employees, professional acknowledgment and being asked to contribute and challenge.

They understand how the current higher education sector came to be. They recognise how globalisation and the marketisation of universities, coupled with government policy, have changed universities’ funing and priorities.

While they say they do not see easy ways to change the political landscape, they have suggestions on how their organisations can be improved for the sake of their wellbeing. For example, insitutions can increase training in relation to personal wellbeing, be more overt in approaching staff wellbeing and reducing staff anxiety surrounding fear of losing jobs.

One academic said: “Management should stop generating anxiety in the system and stop creating
anxious systems”.

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