Last March Dr Gareth Roberts collapsed during a senior university administrative meeting at the University of Exeter. An ambulance was called but paramedics were unable to revive Roberts, who had suffered a massive heart attack. Shocked friends and colleagues are convinced that his unexpected and sudden death was brought on by stress.
A colleague who declined to be named notes that Roberts arrived at the meeting, which was chaired by the Vice Chancellor, Sir Geoffrey Holland, a little late and was flustered: "But who isn't forever running late?" he asks rhetorically. "Our workload has sky-rocketed. Form after form, assessment after assessment, and always due the day before yesterday. When you're expected to actually do some teaching or research is anyone's guess. This tragedy has to serve as a wake-up call for the powers that be."
Yet before Roberts' death a wake-up call had already been delivered from within the university. Keith Nichols is a clinical psychologist specialising in coronary rehabilitation.
"I meet the casualties of work stress and then, like a prophet, try to educate senior managers on how to better care for their employees," he explains.
Over two years ago Nichols, who is a senior lecturer in the university's own psychology department, was asked to give a talk to visiting businessmen. The dinner was attended by the Vice Chancellor, Sir Geoffrey Holland. Afterwards Nichols offered to interview his own colleagues and fill a detailed report. He started with the heads of department and found that without a doubt they were experiencing health threatening levels of stress. Nichols reported in detail to Holland and other managers.
"They were not deaf to it," says Nichols, cautiously. "Institutional change is slow and things like this tend to be barged out by more pressing priorities. When you've got just one person at the helm of a big organisation like this they're knocked about by the latest crisis, the latest directive from the ministry, and consistent application of one thing tends to go to a committee and whether that committee's report is attentive or not..." he trails off.
"We do have a working party on stress," he adds, "but universities, like British management in general, work on a casualty basis - picking up the pieces after the event, rather than implementing preventative measures. The attitude is, if it's not bust don't fix it, whereas my argument is, if you fix it then it shouldn't bust.
"I interviewed several heads of department who were in my view very seriously at risk. Universities need a better way of monitoring staff well-being."
Gareth Roberts was extremely well liked by both staff and students in the School of English, where he was a senior lecturer. The week after his funeral a minute's silence was observed. After the shock came the smouldering anger. Staff wonder whether his death was avoidable, and whether enough is being done by to safeguard employees' health.
Last month the university authorities launched a free 24 hour helpline for staff and their families worried about stress. Details of the Employment Support Hotline (ESH), run by an external commercial agency, were accompanied by a letter from the Vice Chancellor Sir Geoffrey Holland stressing that the service was completely anonymous and confidential. Critics say it's too little too late.
Nichols is additionally concerned about employing an 'external' counselling service: "The problem is in danger of being exported to a privately run institution that is free of any obligation to look at why a person is in trouble and do anything to prevent it." he warns. Prevention rather than casualty management is what is needed.
A spokesperson for the university accepted that the helpline was not a complete answer but it was a start. Staff could also to talk to their line manager or GP. "We will do our best to help them."
But there are externally generated pressures on staff, from current research assessment exercise and teaching quality assessments, that the university could not avoid. "Universities have become a lot more competitive. That is something we cannot escape from."