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CAUT Bulletin Archives

March 2008

Stressed Out at Work? Join the Club!

By Greg Allain
How well have you been concentrating or relaxing lately? Feeling more tired, anxious, irritable, depressed even? How about having difficulty sleeping? If you experience more than a few of these symptoms on a regular basis, chances are you have joined the legions of academic staff afflicted by work-related stress: welcome to the new academe!

In the early 1980s, a Canadian survey concluded that “professorship was a relatively stress-free occupation.” But as we all know, things have changed drastically since then, as a result of numerous transformations in higher learning institutions.

According to Lori Francis, a psychology professor at Saint Mary’s University, “Work stress is an increasingly common and alarmingly severe condition that is a major concern for both individual employees and organizations. In fact, occupational stress was noted as one of 10 leading causes of death in the workplace by the (US) National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. It is commonly considered to be an epidemic in North America.”

So what has happened in post-secondary environments to cause stressful conditions? A 2002 survey of occupational stress in Australian universities found academic staff to be highly stressed, due to factors such as “diminishing resources, increased teaching loads and student/staff ratios, pressure to attract external funds, job insecurity, poor management and a lack of recognition and reward.” (Catano et al., 2007)

Another national study, conducted in the U.K. in 2005, concluded that “academic staff were stressed by co-workers not pulling their weight, lack of control over decisions affecting their jobs, lack of resources, not being informed about job relevant information, work interfering with home and personal life, insufficient time to do their jobs at the quality level the academics felt necessary, and the level of their pay and benefits.” (Catano et al., 2007)

Sound familiar?

We could add other factors to that list, such as the perceived lower levels of preparedness of many students and the cumbersome and ever growing maze of bureaucratic rules that must be followed in all areas, and in particular in research endeavours.

At the root of all this, we can trace the effects of two key structural processes. The first is the casualization of work in academe, where more and more retiring staff are not being replaced, or are being replaced by contract academic staff, creating profound job insecurity. In the United States, less that a third of the professoriate at degree-granting institutions are tenured or have tenure-track positions. We do not have accurate data for Canada, but anecdotal evidence suggests our trend is headed in that direction.

The second major element of change since the 1980s is the intensification of work. Expectations of scholarly output from junior faculty have ratcheted upwards quite significantly. Widespread use of email has created the expectation that academic staff should be available 24/7. Routine clerical and administrative tasks have been offloaded to academics, turning us into full-time multitaskers if we want to survive.

All these factors contribute to work-life imbalance among academics and precipitate anxiety or elevated stress. Bullying, the topic of my January and February columns, could be an additional stressor.

As Canada has a dearth of reliable data on stress in the academic workplace, a team of researchers (Catano et al., 2007) conducted a national survey last year on occupational stress in Canadian universities. The sample included about 1,500 academic staff from 56 universities (a similar study of our college campuses is being conducted this year).

Overall, the researchers found that academic staff had very high levels of stress, a finding similar to what the Australian and U.K. studies reported.

In particular, “A majority, in most cases a large majority, of respondents reported a high level of agreement with stress indicators on seven of the 10 measures we used to assess stress: workload (85%), work scheduling (73%), role conflict (82%), role ambiguity (71%), work-life balance (76%), fairness-administration (55%) and fairness rewards (51%).”

Interestingly, demographic variables such as gender, age and language do not explain much of the variance, although there is greater stress risk for women than men. Other, institutional, stressors are associated with physical health and psychological well-being. This is consistent with the thinking of the European Ministerial Conference on Mental Health (2005), which reported that “Most of the causes of stress concern the way work is designed and the way in which organizations are managed.”

The good news is that, despite increasingly stressful working conditions, 65% of respondents said they were satisfied with their jobs, while 60% said they were emotionally committed to their institutions — figures slightly higher than those reported in the Australian study. Still, 13% of respondents said they experience ailments of various kinds, and fully 22% reported relatively high rates of stress-related physical and psychological health problems, again mirroring the results of the Australian survey.

What can be done about rising stress levels? This could be a study in itself, since the situation is so complex, but for now there are a few things collective bargaining could help out with. Negotiating an adequate complement would be a positive start to address the increasing workload, for instance. Clarity of language and clear communication of tenure and promotion expectations would reduce much of the anxiety-inducing uncertainty surrounding these key “rites of passage.” Another area to consider would be ensuring a fair and equitable work distribution across academic units.

Next month: Francophones in CAUT. Stay tuned!