`Rapid' decline in staff well-being, poll reveals

15th May 2015 at 01:00
Almost two-thirds of respondents experience `unacceptable' stress

Stress levels among further education staff have risen dramatically in the past two years, a survey published today reveals. Frequent institutional change and unacceptable working demands are being blamed for the shift.

The poll of 2,250 members of the University and College Union (UCU) finds that stressful working environments are taking their toll on staff in the FE sector, with many reporting high levels of psychological distress and exhaustion.

Some 62 per cent of respondents to the online survey say they often or always experience unacceptable levels of stress. This compares with 45 per cent in 2012. In 2008, the figure stood at just 40 per cent.

Among staff, 70 per cent agree or strongly agree that too many changes have been introduced in their institution, with 90 per cent agreeing that a period of stability is needed in the sector.

Rising tide of anxiety

Organisational change, and how it was managed and communicated, was responsible for the biggest rise in anxiety levels between the 2012 and 2014 surveys.

One respondent says: "A great deal of the stress derives from a failure by college management to explain, discuss or listen to alternatives when it comes to organisational change. Genuine consultation would make an enormous difference, instead of the automatic assumption that college management is always right."

The next most stressful aspect of life in FE is the demands of the job, including work intensity, deadlines and time pressure, the survey finds.

And the growing pressures are having a significant impact on staff well-being: in a rating of psychological distress, 69 per cent of respondents score 4 or above - the level at which intervention is judged to be required to improve psychological health. Almost 90 per cent say they feel worn out at the end of their working day.

Only one in 10 respondents report being very (9 per cent) or extremely (1 per cent) satisfied with their job.

The report compares the UCU data with the results of the Health and Safety Executive's Psychosocial Working Conditions in Britain survey. It reveals a considerably lower level of well-being in FE than in HSE target industries, including education, in relation to the demands made on employees.

Dr Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, who co-authored the UCU report, said the survey showed well-being in the sector was "deteriorating rapidly". She told TES: "Things have worsened considerably since the last survey. A higher proportion of respondents are saying they are experiencing stress that causes them difficulty, that they have problems balancing work with home life and leisure, and they have a lack of time to recover from the demands of the job."

Dr Kinman argued that colleges and providers needed to focus more on staff well-being.

"It's vital to have evidence-based well-being policies that don't just focus on making people more resilient," she added. "It's important to consider employees' lives outside work. People can't maintain a poor work-life balance over time. Their psychological health breaks down and then their physical health."

Despite the financial pressures in the sector, Dr Kinman believes FE institutions could improve the situation by using low-cost interventions.

"Improving communication with staff and making them feel that they matter within an organisation doesn't cost that much at all," she said.

`Desperate need' for stability

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said the survey showed that working in FE was becoming more stressful every year.

"The report details how a lack of stability in the sector is one of the main causes of huge stress for staff," she added. "The sector and the people who work in it desperately need some stability."

Ms Hunt said the cocktail of major structural change and rising workload was a "recipe for disaster".

"The survey shows that a stressful working environment is taking its toll on college staff mentally and physically, with high numbers reporting unacceptable levels of psychological distress and exhaustion," she added. "This report sets out mid- and long-term targets for colleges to alleviate stress and they should not be ignored."

The Association of Colleges, which represents hundreds of institutions across the UK, declined to comment on the report's findings.

`I only take time off if I'm on my knees'

Almost 90 per cent of respondents to the UCU FE survey say they feel pressure to work when they are sick, at least sometimes.

Many say they feel obliged to attend because a lack of cover means their work will not otherwise be done, or because it is too difficult to reschedule classes, assessments and meetings.

A lecturer in Yorkshire says: "I continue to work while I am sick because nobody else can or will do my work and I will have to catch up on my return to work, which can be even more stressful.

"I only take time off sick if I am literally on my knees. I do it for my students as I feel responsible for their success and I don't want to let them down. I also don't want to put more pressure on my colleagues who are already overstretched."

A lecturer in Sussex says: "College policy encourages staff who are off sick to `think about colleagues' who have to cover for their absence."

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