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Constant change and heavy workloads behind rising stress levels of college staff

15 May 2015

Working in further education has become increasingly stressful over the past six years with staff worn down by constant change, says a new report released today

Taking its toll: rising stress levels in further education found the proportion of staff who agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, 'I find my job stressful' rose to 87% in 2014, up from 78% in 2012, which in turn was up from 74% in 2008.

The survey of 2,250 staff working in further education colleges was carried out by Professor Gail Kinman and Siobhan Wray for the University and College Union (UCU). Key findings include:

  • In 2014, 62% of respondents reported they often or always experienced levels of stress they found unacceptable, compared to 45% in 2012 and 40% in 2008
  • Almost nine participants from every ten agreed (43%) or strongly agreed (46%) that they usually felt worn out after the working day
  • Nearly seven of every ten respondents reported performing tasks they considered unreasonable rather often (42%) or frequently (26%). Only 1% believe they never undertake unnecessary tasks
  • Only one in ten respondents were very (9%) or extremely (1%) satisfied with their job. Satisfaction with intrinsic factors, such as fellow workers and variety, was high while the lowest levels of were with the way the organisation is managed, promotion opportunities and industrial relations with management. The overall level of job satisfaction was considerably lower than that reported by many other occupational groups
  • 69% of respondents in further education scored 4 or above on a rating of psychological distress. This is the level at which it is judged intervention is needed to improve psychological health. The equivalent percentage for social workers was 37%, 42% for local authority employees and 47% for the police force
  • Respondents in the 2014 survey reported the lowest wellbeing (equating to highest stress) on the Health and Safety Executive's stressor categories for change (2.24), followed by job demands which equates to workload (2.30), control (2.69), managers' support (2.70), peer support (3.42) relationships (3.43) and role clarity (3.48)

Further education workers reported higher stress on all seven aspects of working lives, as defined and measured by the Health and Safety Executive*, when compared to other industries.

Change emerged as the most stressful aspect of working life in further education in the latest survey. Job demands (workloads) and lack of control over working practices were second and third.

The biggest rise in stress levels since the last UCU survey in 2012 was in response to how change is managed and communicated. The overall level of stress in relation to change was also considerably higher amongst further education workers than workers in other sectors, including other areas of education.

The survey explored change fatigue and found that seven out of ten respondents (70%) agreed or strongly agreed that too many changes had been introduced in their institution. Nine of ten respondents (90%) agreed at least somewhat that a period of stability was required in the sector.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'It is clear that working in further education has become more stressful with every passing year. The report details how a lack of stability in the sector is one of the main causes of huge stress for staff. The sector and the people who work in it desperately need some stability.

'For the first time we explored the problems with the constant changes staff have to deal with and we found that more than two-thirds of staff said too many changes had been introduced in their institution.

'We appreciate a lot of the change has been imposed on colleges from above but this survey also tells us that the way change is being managed and communicated within colleges is a significant source of stress for employees.  

'Add to this workloads that many feel are untenably high and a lack of control over working practices and you have a recipe for disaster. The survey shows a stressful working environment is taking its toll on college staff mentally and physically, with high numbers reporting unacceptable levels of psychological distress and exhaustion. This report sets out mid and long-term targets for colleges to alleviate stress and they should not be ignored.'

*The survey used the Health and Safety Executive's Management Standards Indicator Tool to assess levels of wellbeing. Mean scores were calculated across seven hazard categories: demands, control, managers' support, peer support, relationships, role and change. Scores range from 0 to 5. High scores represent more wellbeing/lower stress while low scores denote more distress relating to each dimension.

Last updated: 10 December 2015