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Survey reveals hidden high stress levels and long-hours culture at universities

4 October 2012

A new survey of 14,000 higher education academic and academic-related staff, carried out by UCU has found their stress level from intense workload is considerably higher than that of the general British working population, and that many universities suffer from a long-hours culture.

The report, released today includes a table of nearly 100 institutions ranked by their staff's reported average level of stress relating to the intensity of demands made on them at work. The table shows that stress levels related to workload at all of the institutions were higher than for the British working population as a whole. A second table ranks universities by the percentage of full-time respondents who work more than 50 hours a week.

The report launches UCU's campaign against excessive workloads in post-16 education.

The union warned the problem of workload and stress is likely to get even worse if universities do not act now. As funding cuts start to bite in higher education, workloads will increase and there will be even greater pressure from students and parents expecting much more for heavily increased university fees.

The survey's findings include:

  • A group of 20 universities is identified as having the highest average stress levels related to work demands, while another group of 20 is identified as having the lowest average stress levels.
  • Over half of all full-time respondents at the University of East London, Oxford Brookes University and Canterbury Christ Church University work, on average, more than 50 hours a week. At another 72 institutions, more than 30% of all full-time respondents reported working over 50 hours a week.
  • UCU members at universities show a considerably higher average level of stress relating to the demands made on them at work, than the British working population as a whole. On a range of 1.00 to 5.00, where 1.00 is highest stress/lowest well-being and 5.00 is lowest stress/highest well-being, the average for UCU members surveyed was 2.51, compared to 3.65 for the British working population.*
  • Every individual university represented in this survey has an average level of stress considerably higher than that of the general British working population.
  • Stress levels related to work demands have risen for UCU members in higher education over the past four years. In 2008, members scored a level of 2.61 on the stress/well-being scale, compared to 2.52 in 2012.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'We call on institutions to hear this collective cry for help and take action to mitigate the increasingly intolerable pressure on stressed-out staff.  

'Staff at every university represented in this survey are more stressed than the average British worker. The result of all this pressure can only drive down standards for students. As the survey shows, the problem has got worse over the past four years and with funding cuts, increased workloads and rising expectations from students and parents paying much more for their education, the situation is likely to become even worse.

'Many academics and academic-related staff are clearly under far too much pressure and we know this level of stress in the workplace can be very damaging to mental and physical health. Some institutions appear to be doing slightly better than others in keeping stress at bay but it's shocking to see that no institution represented in this survey can hold its head up high and say their employees are happy about the demands made on them at work.

'UCU is committed to negotiating with universities to tackle rising stress through our current national workload campaign.'

The survey used a standard Health and Safety Executive questionnaire to measure individuals' stress relating to the demands made on them at work. Respondents rated a series of statements about demands, on issues such as long hours, work intensity and time pressures. Their responses were translated into a numerical score and then an average was calculated for each institution.

*HSE (2008) Psychosocial Working Conditions in Britain in 2008, pp 26-27 (the 'not target' group)

The full report and further information is available on the UCU's Workload Campaign page.

Last updated: 11 December 2015