Academic Staff – The Forgotten Victims of the University Mental Health Crisis?

It’s been described as an ongoing crisis, ever-increasing levels of students reporting mental health problems. To combat this, universities across the UK have allocated resources to raising awareness of mental health disorders, and reducing the stigma surrounding them. 

However, poor mental health is not just a problem for students. Academic staff, often overlooked when it comes to wellbeing, are reporting more mental health issues than ever before. A 2017 study, carried out by researchers from the University of Portsmouth, found that 43% of academic staff displayed symptoms of at least a mild mental disorder – almost twice as prevalent as in the general population. 

In 2017, the University of Leeds was named UK University of the Year. In response, the Vice Chancellor awarded staff an extra day of annual leave as a thank you. On the surface, this seems like a nice bonus. However, some saw it as an empty gesture. 

For this article, we looked at statements from a number of academic staff members at the University of Leeds, primarily in relation to the University’s decision to offer staff members an extra day’s annual leave.

As it is, many academics at the University of Leeds report never taking their full allocation of annual leave. Days off aren’t accounted for in workload models. The buildup of work doesn’t stop – taking a day’s leave often requires working much longer hours on another day to compensate. 

Working as a university academic is not a nine to five job. Hours are flexible – staff have a set amount of work which needs done, and they work until it is finished. At first glance this might seem ideal, but ever-growing workloads ensure that it’s a curse, not a blessing. Some of Leeds’ academic staff reported working 60-80 hour weeks, 11+ hour days, and sometimes even Christmas day, just to keep up with the high demands of their job. 

A survey carried out by UCU, The University and College Union, revealed that 74% of Nottingham Trent University staff work at least 6 extra hours a week, with 29% working more than 11 extra unpaid hours regularly. 94% of staff revealed that their workload impacts on their mental health, with 51% admitting to finding it unmanageable most of the time. 

In a statement to The Gryphon, UCU said:

“[We are] extremely worried about the increasing mental ill health of staff in the sector and will be discussing a number of policy-making motions addressing mental health issues at [our] annual Congress in May.

“These relate to the effects of job losses, workloads and stress on staff mental health, with a focus on staff on insecure, casualised contracts, disabled staff and LGBT+ staff.

“[Motions] include campaign plans to push for adequate mental health support for staff and students, alongside fighting against the workplace practices which contribute to this blight on Universities.”

The University of Leeds has resources in place for staff members experiencing mental health problems, including their Staff Counselling and Psychological Support Service. It seems, however, that the biggest issues lie with prevention of mental health problems, rather than treating them once they arise. 

Academic staff at the University of Leeds report feelings of inadequacy, overwhelming pressure, and lack of acknowledgement or respect from the university. Some expressed that there is often little room for a work-life balance; work becomes life. Juggling a family, kids, and 60+ hours a week in the workplace means that academics often have very little personal time, putting them at serious risk of ‘burning out’. 

In February of 2018, Dr Malcolm Anderson, a lecturer at Cardiff University, took his own life at work. The father of three referenced work pressures and long hours in a note that he had left behind. His wife, recalled him working evenings, weekends, and holidays in order to keep on top of his heavy workload. 

According to his wife, Dr Anderson had told the university that his workload was unmanageable, but nothing ever changed. She expressed that the university work allocation model significantly underestimated the time necessary for many key tasks. This same sentiment has been mirrored by some academic staff at the University of Leeds. They believe that academic workload models must be fairer, more transparent, and that the time allocated for many tasks must be more realistic. 

Increased workloads, pressure to publish in the ‘top tier’, and cuts to funding all contribute to making universities a stressful working environment. More than anything, it seems that academic staff feel undervalued. Often, staff are not consulted on key decisions that affect them; instead, they are told of new changes, and expected to adapt to overcome them.

That being said, when The Gryphon contacted the University of Leeds about the mounting pressures being put on academics, a University spokesperson defended the institution’s aims to support its staff:

“Our staff’s mental health and wellbeing is very important to us. It’s an issue that the University takes very seriously and we provide free staff counselling and support, with many Faculties and services offering support at a local level too. 

“In our most recent Annual Staff Survey, 85 per cent of our staff reported that their wellbeing was supported by their manager, and over 90 per cent of our staff reported that they felt supported by their peers and that they could cope with the challenges at work, and that they were aware of the support available.”

Although recent years have seen a reduction in negative attitudes towards mental illness, it seems that the stigma surrounding mental health in the university environment remains prevalent.

The testimonies of academic staff presented in this article suggest that the University of Leeds is not exempt from these problems, begging the question: are management so out-of-touch that they don’t recognise these issues? Or do they simply not care enough to change them?

Image: [Tes]