A Crisis in Mental Health in Academia?

It will surprise no one in academia to know that it is an environment that is stressful, frequently precarious and there never seem to be enough hours in the day. The HEPI report on mental health issues in academia by Liz Morrish published last week (Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff) highlighted the dismaying extent of the problem and considered some of the driving forces. It’s not just the student body that has seen a rapid rise in referrals for counselling, something that has already been much discussed, the increase in numbers amongst HE staff has likewise soared. The HEPI report highlights the difficulties that managerially-driven workload models impose; the ever-increasing use of targets and metrics of different kinds (despite all the warnings introduced in The Metric Tide report, and the recognition that many of these metrics are just proxies for the true value of what is being measured); and the ubiquity of short-term contracts which allow no real opportunity for either security or career development. As a recent article by Ellen Kirkpatrick in the THE highlighted from personal experience, exploitation is rife of those at the bottom of the ladder.

Need this be so? Liz Morrish thinks not, and proposes some solutions which, she claims (without costings) would be cost-neutral. Certainly it is easy to see many hidden costs in driving academics so hard: the cost of running an ever-expanding counselling service, or all those ‘well-being’ activities – yoga at lunchtime anyone? No time! Let alone the working days lost due to poor mental health brought on by overload and stress. There is a huge cost involved in lost days and they only add to the pressures on other folks who have to step in, often at short notice.

That the workplace needn’t be so stressful, that other sectors manage better (albeit their characteristics may be significantly different) was brought home to me, coincidentally also last week, by a visit from a professional manager in health, driving issues around improvements in their multi-national company by considering what makes a difference to mental well-being. By investigating factors that cause stress – potentially leading to serious accidents in their industry when a worker can’t perform at their best – the company was able to improve both health and productivity. It seems quite small adjustments can lead to substantial and measurable gains in anything from profit to retention. I was challenged to consider what metrics HE might use to determine equivalent improvements. For instance, if better support is offered formally to recent academic staff joiners, will their grant success rate improve? If an eye is kept on drop-out rates of PhD students, will it become obvious which academics are abusing their power and making the life of their group a misery? It isn’t difficult to think of metrics that may actually measure the ecosystem’s health and identify failings in structures and processes.

As indicated above Liz Morrish highlighted over-ambitious workloads being imposed on staff by ‘the centre’ as a major problem. Filling up every hour of the day at the start of the year with lectures, tutorials, labs, committees, where does that leave time for writing references, replying to enquiries from anxious students, writing grants let alone attending conferences or getting out there in the big bad world passing on hard-earned expertise? I am lucky my university does not operate like this, and we are largely judged on what we deliver not the timing of when we deliver it. That of course has all kinds of downsides too since the work may never stop, academics are all too often driven by perfectionism so why would I knock of at 6pm when I could work till 9 and get that referee’s report finished, that grant form completed….Nevertheless I am grateful neither presenteeism nor slavish filling in of time sheets are required of me.

The Athena Swan process is an opportunity to explore workload models too, which are one of the elements an action plan for an award might consider. But a model is only ever as good as its ingredients. If the workload model takes no account of external professional service, for instance, sitting on committees for research councis, conference organisation or those of  professional bodies, then it damages the whole community. The system would not run smoothly if people did not take on these roles, and many people may be better at these tasks than being patient in a first year practical class with the klutzy novice, or possibly even than in teaching a first year service lecture course to hundreds of unmotivated students who would rather be anywhere else than having basic thermodynamics thrust down their throat at 9am on a Monday morning. What about all that outreach work? Does that get factored into a workload model? Or giving time to the local LEP (Local Enterprise Partnership) to support and drive relevant innovation and build community bridges with a university? There are so many roles that almost certainly benefit the wider community, at least as much as the individual, yet which carry no weight in a typical departmental model. With the net effect that the staff member has to add in hours of extra work in each week, reducing quality time at home or time recharging batteries.

The system as is seems unsustainable. Mental health is suffering up and down the country’s universities and, with pronouncements about ‘scaremongering’ amongst universities about their financial futures from the Education Secretary Damien Hinds in the run-up to the (purported) release of the Augar Review Report, it is hard to see there being any slack in the system likely to reduce the burden on the individual in the near future. On the contrary, if Hinds gets his way it would seem likely that pressures will only increase to get more bums on seats, more ‘efficiency’, and less actual education (as opposed to training) of students and more staff with burn-out and poor mental health.

We need to learn from other sectors about looking after the health of our staff, not just with ergonomic workstations for physical well-being, but in support and thought about what is best for everyone’s mental health. The HEPI report highlights the two well-documented suicides consequent on overuse of targets and excessively heavy workloads. It reminds us of the human cost of an impersonal management that ignores the individual and their needs. As a sector, we need to do better and I hope senior management teams – at the institutional and departmental level – will take time to reflect on the messages and vow to do better in the future.

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One Response to A Crisis in Mental Health in Academia?

  1. Stephen Eichhorn says:

    As a person who has had mental health issues in the past I can testify that this is a very complex and individualised issue. Universities tend to introduce policies that deal with the symptoms of a declining mental health – more support services etc – rather than the route causes. One approach that would work much better in HE is if we were all encouraged to get together more, make personal contact instead of sending emails, dictats etc. One thing I noticed recently in becoming a senior manager was that I was suddenly exposed to seeing a wide range of people that I could physically meet, who often shared frustrations with the HE system and with whom I could talk through problems. That level of privilege for senior management within HE organisations is perhaps not appreciated, and levels of isolation can be very high for regular staff. I feel duty bound to also raise issues of the most marginalised in our organisations – of those at the intersections. The invisibility (yet visible otherness) of black women, talked about in Deborah Gabriel’s book ‘Inside the Ivory Tower’, leads to a particular and specific set of mental health issues that are never acknowledged. It’s high time we listened and acted. As you say other organisations appear to do better – so can we.

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