Fighting fund banner


Academics stressed out by growing loss of control over workloads

7 March 2013

A survey of more than 14,000 higher education staff in the UK, carried out by UCU, has found academics and academic-related staff are increasingly stressed by a feeling of loss of control over the way they work.

The report, released today, found that stress caused by a perceived lack of control at work has increased among higher education staff over the past four years (2008-2012). The report also names and shames a group of 20 universities where staff were most likely to report they lacked autonomy in their day-to-day working lives.

Using a standard Health and Safety Executive questionnaire, the survey asked respondents to rate six statements about control of their workload, such as their ability to decide when to take a break, choice over how to do their work and what to do at work, and control of the speed of their 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 all respondents and for each individual institution where there were at least 53 respondents.

Key findings include:

  • academic and related staff have become more stressed about a perceived lack of control over how they plan and time their workload over the past four years. The average score for UCU members across all higher education institutions included in the survey in 2012 was 3.62. In 2008, the equivalent score - indicating lower stress levels - was 3.75
  • at a quarter of universities in the report, academic and related staff were more stressed by a lack of control over their work than the average British worker. Those institutions had a worse score than the last recorded average for the British working population, as measured by the Health and Safety Executive in 2008, of 3.52. The lowest level recorded at any of the universities included in this report was 3.09.

In light of the results, part of a wider survey on occupational stress in higher education, UCU has called on those institutions that do badly on this measure of stress, to re-examine working practices.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'Some universities have moved towards a managerial culture which has contributed towards this damaging level of micro-management for academics and their professional colleagues.

'University lecturers and other members of the academic team are dedicated and conscientious professionals and there has to be a degree of trust. A high level of interference in the minutiae of their working lives will only increase stress and corrode morale.

'The overall trend for academics to feel they have less control of their work over the past four years is worrying but may be partly attributable to pressures resulting from theResearch Excellence Framework. The problem is very much focused in particular universities that are using management techniques designed for businesses that have nothing in common with education.'

*HSE (2008) Psychosocial Working Conditions in Britain in 2008
Statements rated by respondents:

I can decide when to take a break.
I have a say in my own work speed.
I have a choice in deciding how to do my work.
I have a choice in deciding what I do at work.
I have some say over the way I work.
My working time can be flexible.

Click for further information on UCU's current Workload Campaign.

Last updated: 10 December 2015