University staff mental health: demand for support services soars

New Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) report finds increases in referrals as high as 500% since 2010

Demand for mental health support has increased significantly over the past 12 months, according to a new report into university staff mental health by The Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi).

Pressure Vessels II: An update on mental health among higher education staff in the UK (HEPI Policy Note 23), by Dr Liz Morrish and Professor Nicky Priaulx, reveals figures obtained via Freedom of Information requests on demand for counselling and occupational health services.

The report builds on Hepi’s earlier work on this issue, published in May 2019 as Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff, which was the first detailed analysis of the mental health situation for higher education staff.

Where that paper focused primarily on academic staff, the new one includes all employees.

Like the virus, workplace stress is here to stay and must be addressed

“The first Pressure Vessels report was well received by staff who work in higher education,” said Dr Liz Morrish, the author of the original report and the co-author of the new report.

“However, some managers and executives appeared unwilling to accept the findings of year-on-year increases in mental health problems. We hope this updated report will confirm our case beyond argument.

“The current sample of institutions has identified increases in referrals to occupational health and counselling as high as 500% since 2010.

“We have also looked at the effect of this climate of workplace stress on staff retention. As we look forward to a future after the Covid-19 pandemic, higher education staff and managers would be unwise to disregard the additional pressures this will bring.

“Like the virus, workplace stress is here to stay and must be addressed.”

The report’s findings

    • Analysis of 17 universities reveals a continued rise in staff access to counselling and occupational health referrals since Pressure Vessels was published in 2019.
    • From 2016 to 2018, there was an increase of 16% in counselling at the 14 universities for which comparable time series data were obtained.
    • Over the same period of time, there was a rise of 19% in occupational health referrals at the 16 universities for which comparable time series data were obtained.
    • From 2009/10 to the end of 2017/18, at those five universities reporting complete data, there was a rise of 172% in staff access to counselling.
    • At all 17 universities, there has been a rise in staff access to counselling of 155% in recent years. The highest increases were at the University of Bath (500%), the University of Kent (325%) and Keele University (203%).
    • At the 10 universities with data for 2009 to 2018, occupational health referrals rose by 170%. The largest occupational health referral increases were at Kent (500%), De Montfort (392%) and Bristol (334%), although there was a fall of 75% at Bath.
    • For counselling and occupational health, the figures reflect gender differentiation, with women more highly represented. Women are more likely than men to access staff counselling even after taking into account the fact that there are more female university staff than male university staff.
    • There is also a pattern corresponding to contract type: for occupational health data, the largest proportion of individuals being referred are professional services staff.

While the report’s authors acknowledge that “greater use of support services may sometimes reflect improved access”, they argue that the analysis “provides strong support for our claims about the declining mental health of university staff”.

The paper concludes by recommending that senior university leaders should:

  • recognise workplace stress in academia is increasing and referrals to counselling and occupational health should be consistently and accurately documented
  • recognise stress can be caused by structural problems, such as overwork, insecurity, uncertainty, excessive surveillance and decreased autonomy – “these must be addressed sector-wide and cannot be remedied by ‘wellness’ programmes”
  • hold themselves accountable for ensuring that current high levels of workplace stress are diminished, and that known stressors within institutional control are immediately reduced to the Health and Safety Executive’s acceptable levels; and “enhance the sustainability of academic careers, with a focus on reducing stress and burnout and enhancing the intrinsic reward of work in universities”

Nick Hillman, the director of HEPI, said:

“After the Covid-19 crisis is over, universities are going to have to pick up the pieces. There will be new challenges in recruiting and keeping students, in managing finances and in delivering research. It is vital that the wellbeing of all staff is considered as these changes occur.

“The future success of our universities mustn’t come at the cost of individuals’ lives. We need to build a virtuous circle by delivering supportive environments that strengthen institutions because they work well for all staff and students, rather than a vicious circle where institutions may succeed in the short term but people’s wellbeing is harmed.”

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