University staff face psychosocial safety risks

Many university staff are experiencing conditions that are harmful to their wellbeing, with increases in psychosocial safety risks, psychological distress, levels of exhaustion and work pressure, according to a research report.

It found that 67 per cent of university staff are at high to very high risk on the psychosocial safety climate scale, which indicates that these employees are at high risk of mental injury stemming from work conditions.

A further 44 per cent have experienced high to very high levels of psychological distress, with symptoms such as tiredness, nervousness and depressive symptoms, while 66 per cent experienced high to very high levels of exhaustion with emotionally draining work.

Another 75 per cent of university staff experienced high work pressure, which reflects the strain an individual faces as a result of the speed, intensity and demands of tasks as part of the experience of working.

The Australian University Staff Work, Digital Stress and Wellbeing Survey, which was conducted by the University of South Australia’s Psychosocial Safety Climate Global Observatory, compiled four years of data (2020 – 2023) on the psychological health and wellbeing of staff at Australian universities.

It found that 57 per cent of staff disagreed or strongly disagreed that senior management considers employee psychological health to be as important as productivity, or that senior management acts quickly to correct problems/issues that affect employees’ psychological health (51 per cent).

High levels of work pressure and exhaustion have a knock-on effect for many staff, with 62 per cent of staff reporting high levels of work-life conflict (and notably higher levels of conflict for women and academic respondents).

In terms of physical health, 49 per cent experienced some or a lot of back or neck pain, as well as pain in their arms, legs, or joint areas such as knees or hips (40 per cent), muscle soreness (36 per cent) and headaches (30 per cent).”

The research report pointed to a significant number of potential contributing factors to the strain and stress being experienced by university staff.

For example, 63 per cent agreed or strongly agreed that the quantity of email they receive can be overwhelming while 58 per cent said they do not have enough time to deal with email and this disrupts their ongoing work.

A further 77 per cent agreed or strongly agreed that they feel pressure to keep up-to-date with digital communication technology, while others said there is not enough work time available to learn new digital communication platforms/practices (72 per cent) or there were too many digital communication platforms (71 per cent).