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.


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. 


You may also be interested in these articles:

VocTech Futures in the Health and Social Care Sectors #VocTechFutures Episode 4

Sponsored Video


Upcoming FE Events

Advertiser Skyscrapers

Latest Education News

Further Education News

The FE News Channel gives you the latest education news and updates on emerging education strategies and the #FutureofEducation and the #FutureofWork.

Providing trustworthy and positive Further Education news and views since 2003, we are a digital news channel with a mixture of written word articles, podcasts and videos. Our specialisation is providing you with a mixture of the latest education news, our stance is always positive, sector building and sharing different perspectives and views from thought leaders, to provide you with a think tank of new ideas and solutions to bring the education sector together and come up with new innovative solutions and ideas.

FE News publish exclusive peer to peer thought leadership articles from our feature writers, as well as user generated content across our network of over 3000 Newsrooms, offering multiple sources of the latest education news across the Education and Employability sectors.

FE News also broadcast live events, podcasts with leading experts and thought leaders, webinars, video interviews and Further Education news bulletins so you receive the latest developments in Skills News and across the Apprenticeship, Further Education and Employability sectors.

Every week FE News has over 200 articles and new pieces of content per week. We are a news channel providing the latest Further Education News, giving insight from multiple sources on the latest education policy developments, latest strategies, through to our thought leaders who provide blue sky thinking strategy, best practice and innovation to help look into the future developments for education and the future of work.

In Jan 2021, FE News had over 173,000 unique visitors according to Google Analytics and over 200 new pieces of news content every week, from thought leadership articles, to the latest education news via written word, podcasts, video to press releases from across the sector, putting us in the top 2,000 websites in the UK.

We thought it would be helpful to explain how we tier our latest education news content and how you can get involved and understand how you can read the latest daily Further Education news and how we structure our FE Week of content:

Main Features

Our main features are exclusive and are thought leadership articles and blue sky thinking with experts writing peer to peer news articles about the future of education and the future of work. The focus is solution led thought leadership, sharing best practice, innovation and emerging strategy. These are often articles about the future of education and the future of work, they often then create future education news articles. We limit our main features to a maximum of 20 per week, as they are often about new concepts and new thought processes. Our main features are also exclusive articles responding to the latest education news, maybe an insight from an expert into a policy announcement or response to an education think tank report or a white paper.

FE Voices

FE Voices was originally set up as a section on FE News to give a voice back to the sector. As we now have over 3,000 newsrooms and contributors, FE Voices are usually thought leadership articles, they don’t necessarily have to be exclusive, but usually are, they are slightly shorter than Main Features. FE Voices can include more mixed media with the Further Education News articles, such as embedded podcasts and videos. Our sector response articles asking for different comments and opinions to education policy announcements or responding to a report of white paper are usually held in the FE Voices section. If we have a live podcast in an evening or a radio show such as SkillsWorldLive radio show, the next morning we place the FE podcast recording in the FE Voices section.

Sector News

In sector news we have a blend of content from Press Releases, education resources, reports, education research, white papers from a range of contributors. We have a lot of positive education news articles from colleges, awarding organisations and Apprenticeship Training Providers, press releases from DfE to Think Tanks giving the overview of a report, through to helpful resources to help you with delivering education strategies to your learners and students.


We have a range of education podcasts on FE News, from hour long full production FE podcasts such as SkillsWorldLive in conjunction with the Federation of Awarding Bodies, to weekly podcasts from experts and thought leaders, providing advice and guidance to leaders. FE News also record podcasts at conferences and events, giving you one on one podcasts with education and skills experts on the latest strategies and developments.

We have over 150 education podcasts on FE News, ranging from EdTech podcasts with experts discussing Education 4.0 and how technology is complimenting and transforming education, to podcasts with experts discussing education research, the future of work, how to develop skills systems for jobs of the future to interviews with the Apprenticeship and Skills Minister.

We record our own exclusive FE News podcasts, work in conjunction with sector partners such as FAB to create weekly podcasts and daily education podcasts, through to working with sector leaders creating exclusive education news podcasts.

Education Video Interviews

FE News have over 700 FE Video interviews and have been recording education video interviews with experts for over 12 years. These are usually vox pop video interviews with experts across education and work, discussing blue sky thinking ideas and views about the future of education and work.


FE News has a free events calendar to check out the latest conferences, webinars and events to keep up to date with the latest education news and strategies.

FE Newsrooms

The FE Newsroom is home to your content if you are a FE News contributor. It also help the audience develop relationship with either you as an individual or your organisation as they can click through and ‘box set’ consume all of your previous thought leadership articles, latest education news press releases, videos and education podcasts.

Do you want to contribute, share your ideas or vision or share a press release?

If you want to write a thought leadership article, share your ideas and vision for the future of education or the future of work, write a press release sharing the latest education news or contribute to a podcast, first of all you need to set up a FE Newsroom login (which is free): once the team have approved your newsroom (all content, newsrooms are all approved by a member of the FE News team- no robots are used in this process!), you can then start adding content (again all articles, videos and podcasts are all approved by the FE News editorial team before they go live on FE News). As all newsrooms and content are approved by the FE News team, there will be a slight delay on the team being able to review and approve content.

 RSS IconRSS Feed Selection Page