The number of university workers accessing counselling and occupational health services has shot up, according to research which describes “an epidemic” of poor mental health among higher education staff.
Freedom of information requests revealed that at one university, staff referrals to counselling services went up more than 300% over a six-year period up to 2015 while, at another, referrals to occupational health soared by more than 400%.
There has been growing awareness of the crisis in student mental health in recent years, but attention is increasingly turning to staff in universities, many of whom are said to be “at breaking point”.
According to the study, based on data from 59 universities, there has been a 316% increase in access to counselling services at the University of Warwick, a 292% increase at Kent, 172% at Brunel, 126% at Newcastle and 88% at Bristol.
While there were some cases of rates of referrals going down, at Bath and Manchester for example, overall referrals of staff to occupational health services showed a similar upward trajectory, up 424% at the University of Kent which saw the number of referrals rise from just over 70 to a little under 400. At Cambridge, referrals went up 179%, at Essex 159% and at 142% at Bristol.
The report acknowledges that the increase may in part be down to improved access to support services, but it goes on to characterise universities as “anxiety machines” where staff struggle with excessive workloads, precarious contracts and a culture of workplace surveillance.
“In academic life, there are no peaks and troughs of work any more as the pace continues relentlessly throughout the year,” said report author Liz Morrish, a visiting fellow at York St John University who researches the effects of managerialism in universities.
“As university fees have risen in England and Wales, the pressure to satisfy increasing student expectations has fallen on teaching staff. Managers have increased their demands on the academic workforce over concern about university rankings and league tables. At the same time, repeated research and teaching audits have created a culture of workplace surveillance.
“Academics are inherently vulnerable to overwork and self-criticism, but the sources of stress have multiplied to the point that many are at breaking point.”
She said it was essential to take steps to make universities more humane and rewarding workplaces which allow talented individuals to thrive.
The report, which was commissioned by the Higher Education Policy Institute, recommends ways in which university managers can ease the toll on staff, including not scheduling workloads “up to the max” to allow time for scholarly contemplation and experimentation, introducing more reasonable expectations of staff, and ensuring career pathways that offer opportunities for development, with the security of employment.
The University and College Union (UCU), which represents university workers, called on institutions to deal with the root causes of rising stress levels.
UCU acting general secretary Paul Cottrell said: “Staff are at breaking point and unless there is a sea change in how government and university management treat staff, the number of people seeking help is unlikely to come down.”
Universities UK, the industry body, said the mental health and wellbeing of staff and students was a priority for universities. “Across the sector, there are many practical initiatives to support staff in mental health difficulties, to improve career paths and workplace cultures.
“Universities do recognise that there is more that can be done to create the supportive working environments in which both academic and professional staff thrive, including ongoing conversations about the structural conditions of work in higher education.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Universities, like all employers, have a duty of care to their employees. We expect them to take this seriously.”
Warwick University said the figures were now four years old. “Just last month we added an additional wellbeing service for Warwick staff partnering with independent organisation Health Assured to provide all Warwick salaried employees with free access to additional wellbeing support.”