‘It’s cut-throat’: half of UK academics stressed and 40% thinking of leaving
Frequent rejection and a loss of control are making university staff isolated and ill, new research shows
When Ed Harris, a management lecturer at a modern university, stopped sleeping and began having marriage problems, he realised he was no longer coping with the pressures of his job.
“Most of the time you handle it, but the anger and unhappiness build up,” says Harris (not his real name). “I was constantly stressed. There was a lot of micromanagement and setting of deadlines and I was always working late and checking emails at all hours.”
Harris says he went into an emotional “tailspin” after being turned down for a promotion he’d been encouraged to apply for – he was told his list of research publications wasn’t strong enough. He says that with a heavy teaching workload and many other administrative pressures, there simply hadn’t been time to do much of the research he loves.
“I felt whatever I put work into I would be blamed for what I wasn’t doing,” he says. “The system feels chaotic and you don’t understand how you’re being judged.”
One qualitative study found that academics are often isolated and anxious, in a system they feel is driven by financial targets and what one called a “treadmill of justification”.
A second survey, by the polling company YouGov for the charity, found that 55% of higher education professionals describe themselves as stressed, and nearly four in 10 had considered leaving the sector in the past two years as a result of health pressures.
One academic said: “I remember a time of camaraderie and collegiality. Now, the external pressures isolate and spotlight individuals.”
Another said: “One of the key skills in current times is working against isolation. If you can’t, then it can be a very lonely job.”
Dennis Guiney, educational psychologist and co-author of the research, explains: “Lack of collegiality was a big concern for the academics we spoke to. Rather than focusing solely on money, they felt university managers should be building this. Academics need to feel valued. Praise is important.”
His research found that academics felt under much more pressure to deliver within the competitive new market in higher education, and this meant a sense of loss of control over their job.
The report quotes one academic saying: “You have to do all you can to keep student numbers high. Otherwise, next year one of your colleagues might lose their job.”
Guiney was surprised to find that academics weren’t complaining about salaries or working conditions. “Instead they were talking about wellbeing being affected by a loss of autonomy. They minded that they weren’t treated as professionals who could input into developing their roles. Many felt that their time was accounted for on a spreadsheet: if you do this much teaching you can do this much research.”
Matthew Flinders, professor of politics at Sheffield University, says: “Academics are working longer and longer, and harder and harder, and they can’t reach that top bar because it keeps moving.”
Flinders, who suffers from depression, warns that academics are expected to excel at everything, which is neither realistic nor good for their mental health. “You must show excellence in teaching, in research, in research impact. We can’t all be excellent all the time. These pressures are causing some people to struggle or sink.”
Flinders worries, in particular, that universities aren’t preparing young people properly for working in higher education. He argues that early career researchers need to be taught resilience, because the level of failure and rejection can be brutal.
“Nine out of 10 of your journal papers will be rejected and the same will happen to your grant applications,” he says. “I say to students: you will get rejections and some will feel really horrible, but you must always know what your plan B is – and your plan C, D and E.”
Flinders recalls sidling up to a big-name academic at an event and whispering in his ear: “Does everything you write get published?”
“He told me he still got rejected,” Flinders says. “Hearing that was heaven. I could have cried. We academics aren’t good at sharing those experiences.”
Sally Le Page had planned to be an academic when she finished her PhD in biology at Oxford. She now makes science videos on YouTube, because she says the HE system isn’t good for young academics’ mental health.
Le Page started getting depression and anxiety while doing her PhD. “All of my friends in Oxford were PhD students and I struggle to think of a single one who hasn’t had depression or anxiety,” she says. “It is a bad cocktail of factors that lead to mental health problems.
“You are working independently a lot of the time, and it can be a lot of long hours in the lab on your own. Everything is so short term in terms of contracts, and you are under constant pressure to publish.”
Flinders thinks many academics feel unable to reach out for help. “Academia likes to be seen as soft and friendly but it is also incredibly cut-throat,” he says. “People want to get published, to win grants and get promoted. So admitting to weakness can feel like a real problem, especially if you aren’t on a permanent contract.”
Guiney’s research echoes this, with many academics saying they felt uncomfortable that, to get help, they had to get a referral from their manager to occupational health, with a report going back to the manager. Some feared that in the current climate this could go on their record and be used for negative purposes.
One academic said: “You are unsure who will get to know about it and if it will affect your job if people find out.”
Harris agrees: “I definitely didn’t think I could speak to anyone internally. You feel it won’t be viewed well if you aren’t coping. The university does offer help but I didn’t trust it to be confidential.”
In desperation he contacted a 24-hour helpline for academics and teachers run by the Education Support Partnership. He was initially sceptical – especially when they put him in touch with a therapist in Ontario, Canada – but quickly found that talking helped. “I was able to put things into perspective. The world wasn’t going to end because I didn’t get that promotion.”
He adds: “Now I can clearly see when people around me at work aren’t coping, and I have directed them towards getting help. I am less wrapped up in my own problems, so I remember to check others are OK.”
If you are working in education you can call the Education Support Partnership’s free and confidential helpline 24/7 on 08000 562 561