Workload and mental health
The workloads of people who work at universities appear to be on the rise. About two-fifths of all university staff say that they have been working longer hours during the working week over the past three years.
The highest proportion of academic respondents work nine hours per weekday; this falls to eight hours for professional and support staff. Academics are twice as likely as professional staff to work 10 or more hours per weekday; 40 per cent of scholars say that they do so, compared with 20 per cent of non-academics (see graph 1, right).
Indeed, one female manager of a university in Europe says that her work-life balance has improved since she left a previous academic post. “You actually can close the office doors
and go into the weekend without having the feeling of missing out on publication, collaboration or funding opportunities,” she says.
Meanwhile, 31 per cent of scholars and 27 per cent of administrators typically work on both days over the weekend. Nearly half of academics typically work one day at the weekend (49 per cent), compared with just over a third of professionals (37 per cent). Two-fifths of scholars (40 per cent) tend to work six or more hours over the weekend; just 15 per cent of professional staff do so (see graph 2, right).
“During the week I am constantly required to attend meetings and deal with issues that are only peripherally related to my roles. This means that anything that requires thought and my research must take place during evenings and weekends,” says one professor at a UK university.
When she relayed her concern that her workload is “unsustainable”, the former dean of her faculty “brushed [it] off with comments such as: ‘There is no one else who is sufficiently senior to perform all these roles’, and implied threats about my subject area being closed down if we do not meet the set KPIS”.
Several other academics also reference senior administrators who either contributed to or failed to address their heavy workloads.
“Much of the increased burden relates to new ideas from proliferating administrators, theme deans and senior managers aimed at policing staff, ticking so-called metric boxes and developing visions. Real problems (chaotic timetables, inadequate estate, inadequate
resources and support) are ignored and/or denied, often in pseudo-hippy newspeak,” says a professor at a Russell Group institution in the north of England.
Another professor at a research-intensive university in the south of England cites “endless bureaucracy developed by lumbering, overstaffed, overthought, overpaid senior administrators” as the main issue. “Most are not competent to project manage, so we often have to do their jobs as well as our own research and teaching. This adds several hours a week of work we aren’t particularly good at or motivated by,” he reports.
Others say that workload allocation models, which are designed to promote a healthy working environment, do little to help.
“There is a tendency to point to workload
allocations and to say ‘you have time allocated for this, what is the problem?’ despite workload allocation matrices being underpinned by enormous underestimations of the time taken for basic tasks,” a professor at a Welsh research university says.
“I feel very stressed. Work is neverending, never good enough, lucrative enough [or] impactful enough, so there is always a lot of pressure to do more,” adds another professor at a research university in the north of England.
The workload of a senior lecturer at an English post-92 university “is only kept below 60 hours per week by neglecting certain duties. Primarily, research suffers first. To adequately fulfil all of my teaching and administrative responsibilities would easily see me working 70 to 80 hours per week.”
But not all academics say that workload is an issue.
“I am very happy with my work-life balance and with leave entitlement and expectations for working hours in my institute. I’m unsure why so many academics feel they have to punish themselves and the quality of their work by working incredibly long hours while publicising and complaining about this – academia doesn’t have to be an arms race, and it is entirely possible to have a healthy work-life balance,” says a postdoctoral researcher at a Scottish research intensive.
Academics also tend to go on fewer holidays away from home than professional staff do. The largest proportion of academic respondents (33 per cent) had one such holiday in the past year, while professionals are most likely to have had two breaks (also 33 per cent). Two or more holidays were enjoyed in the past year by 56 per cent of academics and 62 per cent of professional and support staff.
However, one engineering and technology professor at a UK university says that he has not had a holiday “since 1994”, while a senior lecturer at a post-92 university in the north west of England finds it “almost impossible” to get away: “We are not allowed to book holidays during term time, but we are also not allowed to book holidays over exam periods, marking periods, internal exam board meetings or course development meetings. This means that although we get 35 days [of holiday] a year, we actually only have opportunity to use about 14.”
“I haven’t taken a holiday of a full week in more than three years,” adds a social sciences professor in the US, while a lecturer at a Russell Group university in the south west of England says that she has “had to mark coursework every Christmas holiday for five years”.
A senior lecturer at a post-92 institution says that he has “been told explicitly that by taking holidays I am making others do more work”.
Scholars are 17 percentage points more likely to report that they worked while on holiday (86 per cent) than their non-academic colleagues are (69 per cent). Of those who did work while on holiday (defined as including answering work-related emails), 65 per cent of academics say that doing so took up 5 per cent or more of their holiday, compared with
42 per cent of professional and support staff (see graph 3, page 37).
“I was supposed to take a second holiday, but cancelled it at the last minute. I saw no point in paying to sit in a hotel working, so I just stayed at home and worked instead,” says a lecturer at a Midlands research-intensive.
For others, the issue is not so much time as money. “Due to the hours I am allotted and the money that I make in those hours, I cannot afford to take holidays,” says a research assistant on a temporary contract in the US. “When I do have time off, it is spent at home, and I still have to dedicate time to my job.”
Several academics also report booking holiday in order to have time to complete research, while others say that their managers expect them to work during their time off.
“My boss flat-out refuses to approve holiday leave requests unless I confirm in writing that I will remain in full email contact the entire time,” reports a postdoctoral researcher at an Australian university.
“I’m expected to work on my days away from the office, regardless of whether they’re the weekend or vacation. Failing to respond to emails within 24 hours is considered a sign that you’re not committed to your job,” says an administrator at a Canadian university.
“Workload is the main issue we have to contend with these days. It is affecting mental and physical health and it seems to keep getting worse every year,” adds one professor at a Russell Group university in the north of England.
A sense of an unmanageable workload is often blamed for raising stress and anxiety levels. Our smaller, supplementary survey suggests that this is particularly the case among academics. Male academics are the most likely to say that work negatively affects their mental health “a lot”: 31 per cent give this answer, compared with 26 per cent of female academics and just 17 per cent of professional staff (see graph 4, left; as professional staff answered the supplementary survey in relatively small numbers, we have not subdivided their responses by gender).
Professional staff are also the most likely group of respondents to be able to switch off from work “often” or “always” when they are at home: 24 per cent are able to do so, compared with just 6 per cent of male academics and 7 per cent of female ones (see graph 5, left). Just under half of both groups say that their ability to switch off has worsened in the past three years.
“Many times I feel stressed, and there are nights that I wake up at 2am or 3am thinking about the work I haven’t completed that needs to get done,” says an administrative assistant at a US university.
Several respondents add that leave of absence because of sickness among colleagues has increased. A professor at a research university in the Midlands says that workload and work pressures have “driven me to attempt suicide on multiple occasions”. And a senior lecturer at a post-92 university adds that his university “gives no time for personal life”.
“It’s a cancer that eats away your life,” he adds.
“Stop constant reinvention of the wheel: workloads are just about, at a stretch, manageable if we are left alone to get on with our jobs, but keeling up to speed with whatever is this week's managerial hobbyhorse inevitably pushes things over the edge"
Senior lecturer at a modern unversity in the north west of England