The staff stress and sickness epidemic occurring in Universities across the UK

Access to Counselling Services by staff employed at Higher Education Institutions in the UK between 2009 and 2015 has risen by 77%, with a rise of 64% of staff referrals to Occupational Health services during the same period, the preliminary findings of a study reveal. 

This mirrors a trend recently highlighted by The Guardian in respect of students attending University, with a sharp rise in students requesting counselling services. Described as a ‘mental health crisis’ among students, some institutions have experienced a rise of as much as 96% from 2013 to 2016. A similar crisis has recently been highlighted in respect of doctoral students in UK universities, with more than half of PhD students experiencing symptoms of psychological distress with one in three being at risk of having or developing a psychiatric disorder.  Other studies reveal that concerns over the mental and physical safety of individuals within the Higher Education sector apply not only to students, but also to staff employed by Universities, from academic staff to professional service staff.  A recent report, focusing on the mental health and well-being of researchers entitled Understanding Mental Health in the Research Environment highlights that the majority of people working at universities find their job stressful, with academics being more prone to mental health disorders than those employed in other sectors.

Data obtained through a series of freedom of information requests made in 2017 quantify those concerns. Requesting information across the UK higher education sector, the researchers focused on rates of access to counselling services and occupational health referrals between 2009 and 2015 among 74 Higher Educational institutions (HEIs) employing over  2,000 staff. The figures demonstrate an alarming rise in academic and professional service staff accessing university counselling services as well as a steep rise in referrals to occupational health services since 2009.

Counselling Services

The overall trend for Counselling Services demonstrates a steep upward trajectory. Analysis of those UK Universities that provided complete data ranging from 2009 – 2015 demonstrates a rise of 77% in access to Counselling Services. In one institution, the rise in demand across that period was 316%. Across the 30 HEIs providing complete data for 2010–2015 the overall increase in the rates of access to Counselling Services was 55%. Six institutions within this group saw increases in access of over 100% (with some experiencing over 200% increases in access). 12 of the 74 HEIs did not, or were not able to make this information available. Reasons for accessing Counselling Services range from personal reasons through to workplace concerns (in the latter case, common reasons for seeking counselling by Employee Assistance Providers include: stress, bullying, harassment, demands of the job, work overload, lack of supervision and support, threat of job loss).  

Occupational Health Referrals

A similar picture is presented in respect of management and other referrals of staff to Occupational Health Services. Across 21 HEIs providing full data from 2009 to 2015, the overall rate of referrals increased by 64%, with five within that group showing increases of over 100% in referrals to Occupational Health Services (and one institution with referrals increasing by over 400% since 2009). Across 36 HEIs providing full data from 2010 to 2015, the overall rate of referrals increased by 30%, with ten in that group showing increases of over 50% in referrals to Occupational Health Services (with three institutions with referrals increasing by well over 100% since 2010). 16 of the 74 institutions declined or were unable to provide data.

Things Can Only Go Up?

Researchers sought data for complete years (whether academic or calendar year). Where complete figures were provided for 2016 this highlighted a continued upwards trend. The data for 2016 highlights a 54% increase on 2015 in access to Counselling Services (20 HEIs provided data that permitted this comparison) and 31% increase in Occupational Health referrals (23 HEIs provided data that permitted this comparison).

Women and Professional Service Staff Particularly Impacted 

The researchers also analysed the FOI data to identify the distribution patterns across different populations of staff employed within the Higher Education sector where this information has been made available. Figures provided on gender highlights that women, in particular are more likely to access counselling services (70% of the population accessing Counselling services were female) and to be referred to Occupational Health services (60% female). While the figures across the board highlight a worrying situation for all staff, analysis of contract type, where this information was provided, shows that members of professional service staff are also strongly impacted. Across the 2009 to 2015 period, professional service staff constituted 65% of the total figure on average.

The Road Ahead?

These figures highlight that Universities need to urgently address concerns around the mental and physical health of the staff they employ – as well as students. While many Universities have increasingly emphasised the importance of staff well-being and ‘work-life balance’, what these figures suggest is that those initiatives are simply not working. When asked about this, one academic at a pre-1992 HEI said:

We see all sorts of ‘initiatives’ employers put into place to enhance ‘mindfulness’, to improve our ‘work-life balance’ and there are many opportunities to go on training courses to improve our time-management and become more ‘efficient’. Some of these can be useful and interesting but they don’t address what’s going on. I don’t know whether senior managers don’t understand what’s going on or just don’t care – but for us, it’s really clear that those initiatives won’t achieve anything when our workloads rise year on year, when we’re expected to please everyone and achieve ever higher levels of ‘excellence’. If you have to work like one and a half people all the time, prioritising time you haven’t got and a few downward dogs, aren’t really going to help, are they?

The need to address the underlying causes of the growth of mental health problems in the higher education sector is highlighted by other studies which point towards managerial practices, heavy workloads and a progressive decline in workers’ sense of security in the Higher Education Sector. No doubt, employees in Higher Education are right to feel less secure. With the steep rise in precarious work and redundancies across the sector, the prospect of many losing pension benefits of up to 40 per cent, and the potential for further radical policy reforms hitting Universities in the near future, it is clear that even more stressful times lie ahead.


Want more Information about this piece? 

You can see the raw FOI data provided by individual HEIs by following this link. More detailed information will be provided in future blogs.


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