Jenny Sherrard, UCU

Staff and Students 

When it comes to the question of mental health in post-16 education, much of the focus in recent months has understandably been on students’ mental wellbeing – not least in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. With almost three-fifths (58%) of students in higher education reporting a decline in their mental health during the pandemic, and a shocking 94% of further education colleges having had students attempt suicide within the past year, there is no doubt that urgent action is required.

Students are only half the equation, though. A similarly worrying picture is emerging about the state of mental wellbeing amongst post-16 education staff.

The Covid-19 crisis has greatly exacerbated many of the long-standing structural pressures which put a strain on the mental health of those working in post-16 education.

Problems of excessive workloads, precarious employment, managerialism, and a lack of commitment to inclusive working practices - all of which have been long-standing concerns for staff in colleges, universities and prisons – have become even more heightened during the crisis.

In a survey of over 10,000 UCU members conducted in December 2020, 85% of respondents reported feeling more stressed than they were before the pandemic. When asked about the factors negatively affecting their mental wellbeing in recent months, workload was the most cited reason, with four in five respondents (82%) saying increased workload had negatively impacted their mental wellbeing either a little or a lot.

Moving Mountains in Post-16 FE and HE

These findings reflect the fact that staff in post-16 education have moved mountains throughout the pandemic, rapidly adapting to new ways of working so students can continue learning during lockdown and self-isolation.

But the issue of excessive workloads is not a new one. UCU’s 2016 workload survey found that staff in further and higher education work an average of two days a week unpaid. A report by Liz Morrish for the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) pointed to spiralling rates of staff referrals to counselling and occupational health services, with workload cited as a key contributing factor.

The uncomfortable truth is that the marketised system of post-16 education relies on workload models designed to extract maximum value at the expense of staff wellbeing. These models systematically fail to account for the many administrative tasks and wraparound support measures for students which take up huge swathes of staff time.

Addressing Work Overload

Meaningful improvements in staff mental health will therefore only be possible when the issue of work overload is properly addressed. This needs to include a shift away from the audit-heavy, managerial culture which currently dominates our institutions – encouraged by bureaucratic national initiatives like the Teaching Excellence Framework - and creates huge amounts of needless anxiety for staff.

Workload issues in further and higher education are also indivisible from the widespread reliance on precarious employment models. Thousands of staff in both colleges and universities are hourly paid or employed on a merry-go-round of fixed-term contracts.

Insecure Employment Contracts

Staf f on these insecure contracts have highlighted how they struggle to plan for their futures; are denied access to the same facilities and support (e.g. IT and office space) as their permanently employed colleagues; are not paid sufficiently to allow for completion of all expected work; and find themselves unable to challenge damaging workplace cultures for fear of losing their employment.

It is perhaps little surprise, then, that a 2019 UCU survey of casualised staff in higher education showed that more than seven in ten (71%) of respondents reported that they believed their mental health had been damaged by working on insecure contracts.

Recommendations

There are three areas where urgent action is needed.

Recommendation 1

UCU calls for a holistic approach to improving mental health in post-16 education which includes staff and students across colleges, universities and prisons.

Recommendation 2

Colleges, universities and prisons must be fully inclusive environments for all post-16 staff. From delays to securing reasonable adjustments for disabled workers, to systemic racism frustrating the career progression of black female academics, too often staff face avoidable obstacles to full engagement at work which cause unnecessary distress and anxiety, and exacerbate mental health problems.

Recommendation 3

The pandemic has placed additional pressures on our working and personal lives. If we really want to see improvements in mental health and wellbeing amongst post-16 staff, it’s more important than ever that employers move beyond sticking plaster interventions and get to grips with these major structural causes of stress and anxiety amongst staff. Top of the agenda is addressing excessive workloads and ending insecure employment.

By Jenny Sherrard, UCU

Understanding and Overcoming a Mental Health Crisis in 2021

This article is from the new publication Understanding and Overcoming a Mental Health Crisis in 2021: issues for post-16 education, employment, the world of work and retirement’. 

Some of the issues and concerns for mental health discussed existed prior to the pandemic, but Covid-19 has caused additional pressures on young people and adults. 

The authors make specific recommendations to support apprentices and students at colleges, university and in adult learning, as well as people in and out of work.

The important role of education, lifelong learning and good work in promoting mental wellbeing and reducing mental health problems is also addressed. 

Published by the Campaign for Learning, it brings together sixteen specialists from mental health and post-16 education and employment to set out what needs to be done to prevent or limit a mental health crisis in 2021. 

 

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