Like cupcakes on an assembly line: Towards a more responsible approach to mental health issues in Higher Education


(Photo by Wokandapix at Pixabay)

By Andrea Hajek

Over the past decade, the issue of mental health in higher education has received increased media attention. Articles recently published in the Guardian, for example, speak of a mental health crisis, with ‘British universities […] experiencing a surge in student anxiety, mental breakdowns and depression’. Accordingly, the number of drop-outs among students due to mental health problems has grown considerably. Worse still, a series of suicide cases have occurred, not only involving students: in February 2018, university lecturer Malcolm Anderson took his own life because of workload pressures. Clearly, levels of stress and anxiety are on the rise among staff as well.

This heightened awareness of mental health issues is particularly tangible in social media; it’s easy to come across academics of all levels venting their frustrations in lengthy Twitter threads. Universities, by contrast, fail to get a grip on mental health problems, often entrusting external support agencies or even just telephone services with the task to assist staff and students.

One of the causes of student anxiety is undoubtedly financial in nature; tuition fees have grown considerably over the past decade, with the cap being raised to £9,000 in 2012 (with the exception of Scotland). Similarly, workloads have become ever more unmanageable for staff, who find themselves juggling their time between teaching, marking, board meetings, four-star publications, and so on. All this in a performance-driven and competitive climate, governed by various research quality assessments and annual performance reviews.

Not surprisingly, academic staff increasingly fall back on counselling and occupational health, as Liz Morrish’s Pressure Vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff has shown (HEPI Occasional Paper 20, 2019): ‘Between 2009 and 2015, counselling referrals [by staff] rose by an average of 77 per cent, while staff referrals to occupational health services during the same period rose by 64 per cent’ (p. 13).

Among the reasons for this increase Morrish lists a strong emphasis on performance, excessive workloads, the imposition of metric surveillance, precarity and insecure contracts (p. 13). Her findings are confirmed by various other studies conducted in recent years: a 2018 online survey, for example, demonstrated that 43 per cent of academic staff displayed symptoms of some form of mental disorder.

In reality, workplace stress in higher education has been on the rise for quite some time now: Gail Kinman’s 1998 report on occupational stress in higher education already pinpointed heavy workloads and long working hours as the main causes, in particular among younger (non-tenure-track) academics. Yet, Morrish observes, universities ‘purposefully flout a legal requirement to prevent stress in the workplace’ (p. 14). Thus, another recent study revealed that less than 11 per cent of the 136 universities that participated in the study had adopted any policy to support staff wellbeing.

While studies like that of Morrish are beginning to outline how academic working conditions negatively affect graduate students and academic staff, we don’t have much data on PhD students. Their situation is no less dramatic, though: one study concluded that PhD students were ‘nearly 2.5 times more likely than highly educated people in the general population to be at risk of depression or another psychiatric disorder’.

Yet, universities don’t seem interested in developing policies to tackle mental health problems among their PhDs. Perhaps this is because the latter mostly enroll through a scholarship or a grant – their ‘satisfaction’ is therefore considered less important than that of students paying the full £9,000 tuition fee. We could, however, counter-argue that the dropping out of a funded PhD student due to a mental disorder still implies a financial cost for research institutions, especially when they are part of larger research teams (K. Levecque et al., Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students, Research Policy 46, 2017, p. 869).

Another possible reason for the lack of services directed at PhD students is the fact that they aren’t staff. They aren’t hired to deliver courses and mark exams, so why invest in their psychological wellbeing? Consequently, they don’t have access to counselling or occupational health services. Yet, they are in no less need of support. Further still, given that PhD students have quite specific task characteristics and different working conditions than other academic groups, there is a dire necessity to identify the ‘organizational factors’ that impact on an individual’s mental health (K. Levecque et al, p. 877). Only then can we develop an accurate policy to support PhD students and – I would add – early career researchers.

I hear you saying, well, a PhD programme is meant to create leading academics, capable of resisting stress and handling heavy workloads. Kind of like natural selection. True, but within reasonable limits, and certainly not at the cost of individual suffering. Nor is it true that the ‘fittest’ are always better qualified than their ‘weaker’ peers: unfair recruiting strategies, favouritism, power imbalances and even plain discrimination (often based on gender, generational, racial or class differences) can work to the – not always deserved – advantage of some. PhD students themselves often participate in these power games. Healthy competition? Whatever you call it, it is counter-productive: other than potentially causing individual suffering, in the long run it will affect research itself (K. Levecque et al, p. 877).

In sum, it’s a complicated matter, which can’t be resolved simply by introducing a qualified professional – that’s just making it a personal problem, whereas the responsibility also lies with universities and research policymakers. In fact, I would argue that the problem is inherent in the whole university system.

No easy answers exist, but here’s my top five list of possible ways forward:

  1. Extend the overall duration of the PhD programme, without financial penalties, even if this might imply falling behind in the PhD production process.
  2. Cease to resort to short-term contracts to resolve institutional structural problems ­– this tactic is hardly good for the stability and continuity of departments themselves.
  3. Be more honest with potential PhD students, especially about career and job prospects: higher education shouldn’t be about churning out degrees like cupcakes on an assembly line.
  4. Build PhD communities. Of course this is already happening, often spontaneously, and some universities have excellent postgraduate spaces and training programmes. What would be necessary, though, is a more personalised yet structured service, focused not just on skills training or providing quiet study areas, but also on tackling emotional challenges and helping students develop a healthy work-life balance.
  5. Finally, break the taboo that surrounds mental health. Being more open and honest about it will help academics (especially the younger or more vulnerable ones) to ‘come out’, without fear of penalisation or discrimination.

In the end, what is at stake isn’t just individual suffering, but the quality of higher education as a whole, and the future of our research landscape.

About the author:

Andrea Hajek is an independent researcher and an academic proofreader at Your Editing Alternative. She obtained her doctoral degree at the University of Warwick, and has held a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Glasgow. She is the Managing Editor of the journal Memory Studies and an Associate Editor for Modern Italy. She is also a founding member of the Warwick Oral History Network and an affiliate member of the Centre for Gender History (University of Glasgow).

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