'Colleges must respond to improve the worsening levels of stress among staff'

Sally Hunt

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It’s no secret that teachers at all levels face significant pressures in their day-to-day work, but a report released today show that working in further education has become increasingly stressful and that constant change is a significant root cause.

The survey of 2,250 staff working in further education colleges, carried out by Professor Gail Kinman and Siobhan Wray for the University and College Union (UCU), has found stress levels have risen consistently since 2008 when nearly three-quarters of staff (74 per cent) agreed with the statement, “I find my job stressful”, compared to almost nine in 10 (87 per cent) now.

Change was pinpointed as the aspect of working life which caused the highest stress levels. The overall level of stress in relation to change was considerably higher amongst FE staff than amongst other professionals, including those in other areas of education.

For the first time, the survey explored “change fatigue” and found that seven out of 10 respondents (70 per cent) agreed or strongly agreed that too many changes had been introduced in their institution. After change, job demands (workloads) was the aspect of working life identified as causing most stress. Lack of control over working practices was the third most stressful aspect of working life.

Only one in 10 respondents reported high satisfaction with their job, and the overall level of job satisfaction was strikingly lower than that reported by many other professionals. Interestingly, satisfaction with fellow workers and line managers was high, while the lowest levels of satisfaction were with the way the organisation is managed, promotion opportunities and industrial relations.

It is apparent the FE workplace is affecting the psychological and physical health of its staff. More than two-thirds (69 per cent) of respondents in further education scored 4 or above on a rating of psychological distress. This is the level at which it is judged intervention is needed to improve psychological health.

The survey found UCU members in colleges commonly continue to work when they are sick, indicating a culture of “presenteeism”. Pressure of work, feelings of guilt, lack of cover, a reluctance to let down students and further burden colleagues, job insecurity and knowing that work will remain undone were amongst the most frequently given reasons for this.

The survey sets out some of the prime causes of stress in our colleges. It’s now for colleges to respond to those challenges and work with us to improve a situation which has clearly worsened in recent years. Some solutions don’t cost any money. Praise and recognition for doing a good job, for example, can do a great deal in raising morale and help people feel they are making a difference.

Poor communication and failure to explain reasons for change ranked highly on the stress chart, and all colleges should seek to increase the effectiveness of their communication and ensure that staff can feed into the decision making process. As simple as it sounds, listening to staff is a sound idea, as are good industrial relations.

Maintaining effective industrial relations and reducing stress at work are made much easier when employers ensure that sensible policies are properly implemented. Making sure people take the breaks that they are entitled to pays dividends in terms of job performance and health and wellbeing.

Similarly, colleges must discourage “presenteeism”. Institutions should take a long-term view and realise that staff who work while they are sick are likely to take longer to return to full fitness and are more likely to have serious health breakdowns in the long run.

Finally, the survey reinforces the need for better understanding about the day-to-day pressures that staff are facing. UCU called for last year’s Workload Challenge to be carried out in FE so that the sector as a whole can identify where the pinch points are and work to address them.

Sally Hunt is general secretary of the University and College Union.

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Sally Hunt

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