The findings of our three national surveys of UK university employees (conducted between 2008 and 2014) found that the overall level of work-related wellbeing was poor. Most of the psychosocial hazards included in the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Management Standards framework increased over time, particularly job demands, control, role and relationships, and the extent of self-reported mental health problems also gave cause for concern. Earlier this year, we were commissioned by Education Support to revisit the wellbeing of university staff and identify their support needs.
Our sample comprised 2,046 academic and academic-related employees working in UK universities. As well as revisiting the HSE hazards and other key sources of strain, we also examined employees’ perceptions of the psychosocial safety climate of their institutions, mental health and work-life balance. Some key findings include:
- The psychosocial safety climate was typically perceived to be poor – more so than in studies of other organisations. More than three-quarters of the sample (78%) strongly disagreed or disagreed that their psychological health is considered as important as productivity.
- University employees continue to report lower wellbeing than average for all the HSE’s psychosocial hazard categories. Job demands, support from managers and colleagues, working relationships and role clarity were all identified as requiring urgent action. The HSE framework recognises that job control can help employees manage the demands of their work, but this has also been steadily eroding among university staff over the years.
- The overall level of mental wellbeing found was considerably lower than population norms.Using a well-validated measure (the Warwick Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale), less than one-third of respondents (29%) achieved scores indicating average mental health with more than half (53%) showing signs of probable depression. Moreover, many were showing signs of burnout, with 29% feeling emotionally drained from their work daily.
- The pandemic was generally thought to have intensified workload pressure with key difficulties including the challenges of working online, inflexible deadlines and managing students’ expectations and wellbeing.
- More than six respondents in ten (62%) reported regularly working over 40 hours a week and 22% at least 50 hours. Unsurprisingly, work-life balance was poor, with 36% indicating that they always, or almost always, neglect their personal needs due to work demands.
- Respondents who reported poorer wellbeing relating to job demands, control, support, relationships and role and who worked longer hours were at greater risk of poor mental health, burnout and work-life conflict.
- The support that was most commonly available to help employees manage their work demands tended to be at the individual level (e.g. stress management training and mental health first aid), whereas the initiatives considered to be most effective were at the organisational level (e.g. tackling stress at source, input into decision-making and feeling appreciated and respected).
- Common barriers to accessing support for wellbeing were lack of time due to a heavy workload and an inflexible schedule and little information on what was available.
- Seeking help for work-related stress and mental health can be stigmatised in UK universities More than half of the sample (59%) feared being seen as weak if they sought support for their wellbeing, with just over seven out of ten (71%) agreeing or strongly agreeing that it would harm their career.
- Although respondents generally considered counselling and coaching to be helpful in supporting their wellbeing, they expressed some concerns about limited availability and a lack of insight among practitioners into their work pressures.
- Respondents who reported being able to access a wider range of support initiatives tended to perceive a more positive psychosocial safety climate at their institution. They were also at lesser risk of mental health problems and burnout and had a better work-life balance.
In our report, we provide recommendations to improve the support available to university employees and ensure it is fit for purpose. These actions will help institutions meet the challenges of the COVID-19 outbreak and ‘build back better’ in terms of a healthy and satisfied workforce. The full report can be found here.
Professor Gail Kinman, CWH Director and Visiting Professor of Occupational Health Psychology, Birkbeck University of London and Dr. Siobhan Wray, Associate Professor, University of Lincoln.