Home | Top Stories | Work-related mental distress alarmingly high for uni staff, study finds

Work-related mental distress alarmingly high for uni staff, study finds

Downsizing, layoffs and cost-cutting policies have led to alarmingly high levels of work-related psychological distress in university staff, a new University of South Australia study has found.

Two-thirds, or 67 per cent of respondents, were classed as having 'poor psychosocial safety' at work, which means they were high or very high risk of mental injury stemming from work conditions.

Two in five, or 44 per cent, fall into the high or very high psychological distress category, which includes symptoms like tiredness, nervousness and depression.

Another two thirds reported high or very high emotional exhaustion and burnout, and 75 per cent said they consistently experience high work pressure.

The psychological health and wellbeing study was led by sleep and neurocognition professor, Dr Kurt Lushington, and psychological safety and worker health professor, Maureen Dollard, and followed the mental health of 6291 university staff over four years from 2020.

Where is the pressure coming from?

The study looked at the psychosocial safety climate (a measure and predictor of workplace psychosocial conditions and wellbeing) of universities and found that it was poor and deteriorating.

The psychological distress staff reported experiencing has led to a five per cent decrease in engagement at work, a number that has fallen steadily since 2020.

Four in five agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: "In your university, there have been significant changes such as restructuring, downsizing and layoffs that have significantly affected your job".

Another 82 per cent agreed or strongly agreed with: "In your university, new policies and procedures designed to cut costs are constantly being introduced where you work".

Three in five said work-family conflict, being the impact work demands have on family and home life and duties, was high.

Women and academics said they were struggling with work-life balance more than other university staffers.

Pressure in academic jobs

Of a 571-strong sample of academics, one third said balancing teaching and research roles impacted their psychological health to a very great extent, and another 20 per cent said the impact was to a great extent.

About half the sample said producing academic publications impacted their psychological health to a very great or great extent, and two fifths said the same for acquiring grant funding.

National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) president Dr Alison Barnes has urged Education Minister Jason Clare to prioritise staff wellbeing and safety in the upcoming Universities Accord Final Report.

"Incredibly high levels of stress, exhaustion and mental distress must sound alarm bells for vice-chancellors all across Australia," Dr Barnes said.

“We support the researchers’ calls for a sector-wide requirement that universities report on psychosocial workplace safety as a KPI. 

“In addition, we are calling for a full audit of university staff workloads and a commitment that resourcing be adjusted according to the subsequent findings.”

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One comment

  1. I would expect that every Academic, along with a large proportion of General Staff, would agree vehemently that, in their experiences, university work loads are far, far too high. On the other hand, successive Governments have claimed that their spending on Higher Education has never been so high; and at least in some measures, I suspect they are telling the Truth. So what’s going on?

    To me, it seems clear that the time has come for a Royal Commission into how Universities, as Public Institutions, spend their money. One aspect of university life that often rankles with junior Academic staff, on relatively modest pay packets, is the fact that there are Executives on campus who are paid twice as much as the Prime Minister of Australia. There also often seems to be a fairly impenetrable shroud around much university activity and business; to those at the bottom of the pyramid, it is often seen as a perilous impertinence to ask about these things, although these are nevertheless Public Institutions.

    Politicians are notoriously loathe to act in matters of this type, and particularly if they feel there could be personal advantages after their political lives are over. Australia’s Public Universities are an enormous resource for the Country; yet their well being, along with that of many people working in them, is anything but assured. A properly-balanced Royal Commission could go a long way towards establishing transparency and fitness-for-purpose of some key aspects of these important Public Institutions.

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