Occupational stress is most commonly understood as a sickness of the individual. However, while the symptoms do at first exhibit themselves in the employee the patient is often the institution itself, argues Keith Nichols, a senior lecturer and consultant clinical psychologist from the University of Exeter.
"Universities as a whole are a damaged work culture, and in this they are far from alone in British industry," he says. "There has been a very significant enforced culture change at universities. When you attempt any culture change in a big institution you need to have some important preparatory stages. These were on the whole completely missing. Belated attempts at some sort of token consultation came too late."
In the past two decades scholarship has been completely devalued. While once it was a prime value, an academics' raison d'etre, universities are now high productivity, high volume education assembly lines, in which research is only a small spoke in a large wheel. Where once research was a free-roaming quest for 'truth and knowledge' now it is simply a means of generating income, its worth too often measured in monetary terms, with grants top-sliced by management.
The modern university is a managerialist audit-driven work culture. It is simply not the job most academics sign up for. This change was forced on them from above. They were not consulted and all too often they did not see the need for many of the changes. To say that it has left staff deeply unhappy is a gross understatement. Universities are in fact haemorrhaging good will.
"Staff feel in very considerably role-conflict," says Nichols. "Staff are pulled in too many directions at once," he adds. "They feel they're unable to complete one job adequately and are often forced to do jobs they have no aptitude or training for, particularly on the administrative side.
"Overwork alone is damaging, but when it's coupled with conflict you have the key ingredients of health threatening job stress."
The work culture at British universities is damaged. Although back-up for individual staff members suffering from the side-effects of job stress is beginning to appear at some universities this is only casualty management.
Instead, argues Nichols, we must look long and hard at the new work culture and then together fix it. The system is not irretrievably damaged.
"Management need to be aware they're haemorrhaging good will," says Nichols. "They must acknowledge that for whatever reason, and those reasons will differ from department to department and individual to individual, it isn't working and respond to that."
Very few 'line-managers' even realise they have a duty of care to staff. Given this week's huge government payment to an employee of social services this could be an expensive problem. Regular monitoring of staff well-being and most importantly a meaningful dialogue must become the norm, says Nichols.
"Overall the academics' identity problem has to be addressed," he adds. "We need to re-value the academic within the academic. There's too much confusion about what we're actually wanted for. Are we school teachers, researchers or admin clerks? We have to re-evaluate what our role is."
Management themselves aren't sure because they've been too busy crashing from one crisis to another, leaving them little time for level-headed long-term planning. "I wouldn't want to knock top level university management because all too often they themselves have had this change forced on them too," says Nichols. Partnership must be the new millennium's byword.