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Survey shows bullying and harassment far too common in UK universities

22 November 2012

A survey of 14,000 higher education staff, carried out by UCU has found harassment, friction and bullying are too often the hallmarks of working relationships in Britain's universities.

The report, released today as part of UCU's Anti-Stress and Bullying week (19-26 November), found that every one of the 92 UK universities represented in the survey had a higher average stress level caused by negative relationships at work, than the level for the British working population as a whole.

Using a standard Health and Safety Executive questionnaire, the survey asked respondents to rate four statements about their relationships at work. Those responses were translated into a numerical score, ranging from 1 for high stress to 5 for low stress. An average was calculated for each institution.

Key findings include:

  • The average stress level relating to relationships at work for UCU members in universities is 3.53, compared to 4.20 for the British working population*.
  • Every individual university represented in this survey has an average level of stress relating to relationships at work that is considerably higher than that of the British working population. The highest level of stress for an institution identified by the survey was 3.05, and the lowest level of stress for an institution was 4.01.
  • A group of 19 universities is identified as having the highest average stress levels relating to relationships at work.
  • At one in three of the institutions represented in the survey, more than 10% of respondents said they were 'always' and/or 'often' subject to bullying at work.
  • Stress levels relating to relationships at work have risen for UCU members in higher education over the past four years. In 2008, members scored a level of 3.57 on the stress/well-being scale, compared to 3.53 in 2012.

In light of the results, UCU has called on universities to work with it nationally and locally to tackle the causes of stress and bullying.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'At best, the universities represented in this survey have a climate of fear and anxiety, which demoralises and demotivates staff, and is ultimately counter-productive for them and their students.

'At worst, overt harassment and bullying of individuals is going unchecked. We know from our members that this can have extreme effects on physical and mental health, and in the worst case scenarios renders experienced, hard-working staff no longer able to do their jobs.

'In the past there has been too much focus on individual employees who have suffered from occupational stress and bullying, as though these problems were the fault of the individual. The focus needs to be on employers taking seriously their responsibility to look after the well-being of their staff.'

'Employers have a duty of care for the well-being of those they employ. The way forward is for UCU and other unions to work with employers nationally and locally to tackle the causes of stress and bullying.

*HSE (2008) Psychosocial Working Conditions in Britain in 2008

Statements rated by respondents:
I am subject to personal harassment in the form of unkind words or behaviour
There is friction or anger between colleagues
I am subject to bullying at work
Relationships at work are strained

For further information about UCU's current Workload Campaign, please Workload campaign.

Last updated: 11 December 2015