53% of university staff showing ‘signs of probable depression’

New survey shows employees’ feelings about pandemic workload and wellbeing provision

More than half of employees at UK universities are showing signs of probable depression, according to a new survey by the charity Education Support.

The report – ‘Supporting Staff Wellbeing in Higher Education’ by Dr. Siobhan Wray and Dr Gail Kinman– examines university staff’s feelings about “the psychosocial hazards they encounter, how they feel about the tasks they do and the availability and usefulness of support mechanisms to manage their wellbeing”.

Using wellbeing assessment tool the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scales (WEMWBS), the report found that 53% of those surveyed showed signs of “probable depression” – 10% were assessed as having “possible depression” and 29.4% “average wellbeing”.

Of the 2,046 university staff surveyed, most (85.9%) were employed in academic roles, whereas 14.1% were non-academic managers and professional staff. Seventy nine per cent worked full-time, and 21% worked part-time.

Students demand much more from you than they ever did: e.g. one emailed me 11 times one day as they had nobody else to talk to

The survey also asked respondents for their feelings about the pivot to online learning that occurred at the start of the pandemic: they frequently reported that it had increased workloads and pressure, with some saying that they had been expected to navigate new technology with little experience or support, and without any allowance for the additional time and effort required.

One respondent commented: “Revising teaching material for on-line delivery, including learning new technology and thinking up new ways to keep students engaged etc. is taking 3-4 times as much as it does for face-to-face teaching.”

Another said: “Teaching online is much more stressful and less satisfying since many students don’t like it, never respond via microphone and discussions are almost impossible in sessions.”

Other comments referred to the pressure of increased student needs: “Students demand much more from you than they ever did: e.g. one emailed me 11 times one day as they had nobody else to talk to. Their marks are of greater importance therefore they obsess over their assessments wanting constant guidance and reassurance.”

Some respondents said they had been left insufficient time to meet deadlines for funded research projects.

Remove the cause of the problem (too much work) rather than fighting a losing battle to mitigate the symptoms (the resultant stress)

University wellbeing and mental health interventions came in for strong criticism, with respondents complaining of individualised “sticking plaster” solutions to structural problems caused by workloads and insufficient staffing.

“Individual interventions such as mindfulness and relaxation will not help when we are working 100 hours a week and still can’t meet our deadlines”, said one.

Another said it was necessary to: “Remove the cause of the problem (too much work) rather than fighting a losing battle to mitigate the symptoms (the resultant stress).”

The report also reveals that:
  • Almost eight in 10 (79%) respondents said they need to work very intensively, often or always
  • Almost a third (29%) reported feeling emotionally drained from work every day
  • One in five academics (21%) work an extra two days (16 hours) per week on top of contracted hours
  • Nearly three-quarters of the sample (74.7%) felt able to discuss their experiences of work-related stress with their manager at least sometimes, but 25.3% never felt able to do so
  • Only half of the sample (50%) indicated that they were ‘never’ subjected to personal harassment or bullying at work


The findings come as the University and College Union (UCU) ballots staff at 146 universities over pay and working conditions.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said of the Education Support survey: “This report makes for stark reading, but sadly won’t come as news to the thousands of university staff who have been pushed to breaking point by their own employers.

“These figures should shame every single vice-chancellor in the UK, who rather than criticising university staff balloting for strike action over these issues, should demonstrate they take the welfare of their workforce seriously.

“This crisis hasn’t happened overnight, and staff have been calling for action to tackle unmanageable workloads for years. However, university management have been more interested in chasing student tuition fees, cutting pay and attacking pensions, leaving worn out staff barely able to cope.

“Staff know full-well that industrial action will cause disruption, but these statistics are a timely reminder as to why staff have been left with no choice. Students and staff alike will benefit from an improved culture in our universities, that treats staff as valuable human beings, rather than a transactional resource that can be picked up and dropped whenever.”

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