Poor support leaves UK university staff under acute pressure

Findings of a major UK-wide report ‘Supporting staff wellbeing in Higher Education.’’ by workplace experts Dr Siobhan Wray and Professor Gail Kinman. Commissioned by Education Support, the report is based on their research amongst 2046 academic and academic-related staff. 

News 29 October 2021 / 2 mins read

Over three quarters (78%) of academics and related staff working in higher education believe that the psychological health of employees is not seen as important as productivity a new study has revealed. [i]

Levels of mental wellbeing amongst this workforce are considerably lower than the wider population. Half of those surveyed (53%) show probable signs of depression and less than a third (29%) indicate average wellbeing. Yet over half (59%) feared they would be seen as weak if they sought support.

The findings are part of a major UK-wide report Supporting staff wellbeing in Higher Education' [ii] by workplace experts Dr Siobhan Wray and Professor Gail Kinman. Commissioned by Education Support, the report is based on their research amongst 2046 academic and academic-related staff. [iii]

The study builds on growing evidence from previous research conducted by the authors and others that this is a sector at very high risk of poor mental health and wellbeing. [iv]The report provides evidence too that pressure is increasing and wellbeing and work-life balance deteriorating during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The research by Dr Wray and Professor Kinman also found that:

  • Over three quarters (79%) of respondents said they need to work ‘very intensively,’ ‘often’ or ‘always.’
  • Half (52%) said they experience unrealistic time pressures ‘often,’ or ‘always.’
  • Many show signs of burnout, with 29% reporting feeling emotionally drained from work ‘every day.’
  • More than two in ten academics work a further two working days per week.
  • Common barriers to obtaining support for wellbeing were lack of time due to a heavy workload and an inflexible schedule as well as lack of information about where to get it.

One respondent said: “I am scared to access anything that might show I’m struggling,” another that “support like counselling exists but what is really needed is an organisational culture where it’s ok to talk openly about stress and heavy workload.”

Dr Wray said: 

“These findings are of major concern. They highlight the need for urgent action to improve wellbeing in the higher education sector. Our findings demonstrate the types of support that are likely to help institutions meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and ‘build back better’ in terms of a healthy and productive workforce."             

Professor Kinman said:

"Although there are some examples of good practice in the sector, most support initiatives aim to help employees cope with stress more effectively rather than tackle the root cause of the problem.  By highlighting employees’ support needs at the organisational as well as the individual level, our findings provide a foundation to help UK universities build a systemic and sustainable approach to wellbeing and reduce the stigma of seeking help."

Commenting on the report, Sinéad Mc Brearty, CEO of Education Support said:

 "University life has been turned upside down over the past eighteen months. Alongside the enormous impact on the lives of students, we see tremendous pressure on the higher education workforce.  

“This study leaves us in no doubt that workload, risk of burnout and mental ill-health are serious issues across our universities. None of this is new, but Covid-19 has intensified the risks to staff wellbeing." 


With thanks to UCU for notifying their membership of the survey, without which this report would not have been possible.

[i] The survey opened on 22 March and was open for one month as part of the study by Dr Siobhan Wray, Associate Professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Lincoln and Professor Gail Kinman, Visiting Professor of Occupational Health Psychology, Birkbeck, University of London.

[ii] The report presents the findings of a UK-wide study examining the current working life of those in higher education institutions. 

[iii] The sample was accessed via the University and College Union, Universities UK (UUK). Of 2046 respondents, 45.4% were female, 53.6% male.

[iv] The well established Warwick and Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS) was used to assess the mental wellbeing of respondents to this survey. This examines a person’s psychological functioning, overall satisfaction with life and their ability to forge mutually beneficial relationships (Stewart-Brown et al 2008). In this study, the WEMWBS score was considerably lower than population norms. 29.4% of the sample scored 45 or above (indicating average wellbeing), 10% between 41 and 44 (indicating possible depression) and over half (53.2%) 40 and below (indicating probable depression).