University HR: 5 tips for reducing stress among academics

If someone asked you what academics and healthcare workers have in common, “high levels of occupational stress” might not be the first thing to spring to mind.

However, according to RAND Group’s Understanding mental health in the research environment report, burnout levels for university staff are among the highest of any sector.

The report’s findings indicate that stress levels among academics throughout Europe are untenable for individuals and institutions alike, negatively impacting employees’ mental health and increasing staff turnover, absenteeism and presenteeism.

Professor Jillian Blackmore, who has been involved in two large-scale studies of higher education in the past 15 years and co-authored a number of publications on the subject, says that academic work has “increased in scope, in scale and in intensity” so that academics are “caught between competing and often incompatible demands”.

On top of their teaching commitments, academics are under constant pressure to help improve their university’s global ranking – ideally by being published in high-impact and international journals and having a media presence. They are also expected to build research capacity, bring in research income and complete all their own administrative work – the result, Blackmore says, of universities trying to “work smarter”.

At this point, wellness programs (such as promoting physical activity) are mere band-aid solutions. Blackmore believes they will do little to address the real issues which, according to the RAND report, include unrealistic work demands, change management, work relationships, support provided by managers and colleagues, and clarity about one’s role.

So what can HR professionals and managers do to improve the wellbeing of their academics? The following fundamental and operational changes are becoming increasingly critical in order to effect lasting positive change.

Re-establish trust

HR professionals’ responsibilities to their institutions put them in a difficult position, Blackmore acknowledges, but it’s important for them to demonstrate understanding and support of their academic colleagues as well.

Research indicates employees who feel heard are more likely to be innovative, so look for ways to include academics and make them feel like a valued part of the team.

To show them you are listening, Blackmore suggests reviewing university policies in terms of what they mean for academic workloads, and ensuring you provide management with authentic data that truly represents the voice of your institution’s academics.

Review workloads

Blackmore points out that most academics do a tremendous amount of unpaid labour, regularly working up to 50 or 60 hours per week, while only being paid for 37.5.

“HR does the enterprise-bargaining negotiation, which is operationalised into workload allocations,” she says. “They need to realise the amount of unpaid labour that’s done, and how it invades our personal time and space. The workloads just don’t work.”

According to a 2014 study, university workload allocation processes are more effective when:

Academics are fully involved in their development;
They are incorporated into the budget and resources allocation processes;
They are applied transparently with a standard, institution-wide approach.

Reduce administrative load

“When I started academic life 30-odd years ago, we had people who did a lot of support work, who put all our results online,” Blackmore says. “We don’t have any of that now – academics do everything. There’s not one iota of administrative support, and yet more than 55 per cent of most university budgets go to administration.”

However, is the university really better off reducing administrative support staff if academics are regularly spending their valuable working hours uploading results and performing other mechanical tasks?

A cost-benefit analysis might reveal that your institution would be better off exploring ideas such as:

Reallocating staff to assist academics with administrative tasks during certain times of the year.
Using temp agencies to take on administrative duties during heavy workload times (such as start of semester and following exams).

Improve autonomy

“The one thing that most of us enjoy in academic life is having some autonomy, but now you’ve got a huge amount of performance management, student evaluations, research assessments, and high levels of accountability and surveillance,” Blackmore says.

According to the RAND report, increased job autonomy and involvement in decision-making are associated with greater job satisfaction among academics. It’s important for employees of all levels that they feel respected, and being constantly watched by superiors makes people perturbed and anxious, negatively impacting productivity and job satisfaction.

Consider reviewing the accountability requirements and evaluations at your institution or discussing them directly with academics to find out their perspective.

Address job insecurity

Adding to their stress and insecurity is the fact that, in the face of multiple restructurings and redundancies, more academics are being forced into less-secure research-only or teaching-only positions.

“Academic work has been casualised, and larger and larger numbers of academics are now on contracts, particularly in the research area,” Blackmore says.

“In some universities, up to 80 per cent of their staff in some areas are on contracts or casual/sessional. And quite often it’s women who have families who don’t have time to do the research, so they do the teaching only and it absolutely kills off their career path.”

This is worth at least  bearing in mind when considering the state of the sector and academic wellbeing, given how job insecurity can negatively impact work behaviours and emotions, and cause employees to respond in a way that is counterproductive to the organisation.

While university funding issues must be taken into account, reviewing the use of casual contracts could be a good place to start – particularly as contingent employment can affect productivity and hinder your ability to attract and retain quality staff.

While the above challenges may seem daunting, there is a lot on the line – not just in terms of academic mental health, but also the international reputation of Australian universities, which so heavily relies on their academic staff’s passion and expertise.

By putting the above considerations into action, you can work toward reducing occupational stress among academics, and give them more time and energy to concentrate on what they do best – inspiring students through teaching and research.

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