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CAUT Bulletin Archives

March 2005

Daunting Rank in Occupational Stress

Loretta Czernis
If we suddenly began to bleed uncontrollably at work, we would seek medical help. Yet sometimes when we are emotionally bleeding, we do nothing to help ourselves. Occupational stress is a very real problem in our post-secondary institutions. A recent major British study on occupational stress in higher education, conducted by a team from the University of Plymouth, found that academics suffer higher levels of stress than other professionals. Academics report the highest levels of stress relating to work-life balance, overload and job overall.

Stresses for both genders are addressed in the Plymouth study. It is now known that men suffer significantly from anxiety and depression. According to the Canadian Community Health Survey on Mental Health and Wellbeing, based on data compiled by Statistics Canada, depression is increasing among men and decreasing among women. Even more alarming are suicide statistics. According to research results released last year by the Canadian Health Network, "Among Canadians of all ages, four of every five suicides are male."

It is difficult for many to overcome the stigma associated with mental illnesses and to seek help. Research conducted by the Canadian Mental Health Association indicates that 34 per cent of Canadians believe that people would think less of them if they suffered from depression or anxiety. The study also found that more than three-quarters (78 per cent) of Canadians believe that depression and anxiety have a strong impact on a person's success at their job while 86 per cent believe that depression and anxiety have a strong impact on a person's relationships with their family and friends.

Despite this, almost one-half (49 per cent) of the respondents who reported feelings and symptoms consistent with depression or anxiety have never seen or talked to a health professional. Assuming that these data also apply to academics, it would seem there are many of us who suffer silently.

The sociological theorist C. Wright Mills wrote that inside of personal troubles social issues are to be found. CAUT's 2003 compilation on occupational stress factors is a useful starting point in tracking some of the ongoing sources of stress in the academic workplace. The release provides a list of symptoms. Do you experience headaches, muscle aches, shortness of breath or chest pain because you are being pressured to get more grants, teach more students and take on more administrative tasks? And there are many of these factors that create physical and psychological ill-health as a result of over commitments at work. Leading the way in institutional points of high pressure are performance appraisals, workloads and expectations, communication processes and leadership practices. Such pressures do not help us to maintain and improve our wellbeing.

It is common knowledge that individuals work more effectively when relaxed and comfortable. It would be advantageous for joint health and safety committees to develop strategies to overcome the stigma attached to mental health and instead focus on our collective responsibility to reduce sources of stress and enhance wellbeing in the academy. We can make a much more significant contribution to our post-secondary institutions when our working environment is rooted in health.