Uni staff under stress

 UNIVERSITY of Newcastle staff are seeking more psychological counselling  as the stress of increasing student numbers and job insecurity take their toll.

The Newcastle Herald can reveal that an average of three  employees started  counselling sessions every week last year.

And nine staff lodged workers’ compensation claims for work-related psychological injuries between January 2011 and March this year. Six were accepted by the university’s insurer.

Figures obtained under freedom-of-information laws (Government Information Public Access)  show 227 people, including 160 staff and 67 relatives, saw psychologists for counselling last year.

This included 79 people who sought help for anxiety, 33 for depression and 59 for stress. The figures did not distinguish  between staff and relatives or work- and non-work-related problems.

By comparison, the number of staff and relatives who accessed counselling services in 2005 during the university’s radical restructure and job cuts was 126.

At the time, psychology professor Tony Winefield, the author of a 2002 report into workplace stress in Australian universities, described the figure as ‘‘high’’.

National Tertiary Education Union Newcastle branch president Suzanne Ryan described the  pressure at Newcastle University  as ‘‘extraordinary’’ and said rising staff stress aligned with growing student numbers.

She said decreasing job security, due to an increase in casualisation, was also a contributing factor.

‘‘There is increasing pressure on university staff to deal with more and more students of more and more varied backgrounds, it is a very stressful environment,’’ Ms Ryan said.

‘‘It is important to note that these figures are not a true reflection of the problem because many people battle alone and don’t seek help.’’

Her counterpart at the Community and Public Sector Union, organiser Ron Hunter, agreed an ‘‘imbalance’’ between staff and student numbers was causing ‘‘major concerns’’.

‘‘It is the number one complaint that we hear and there appears to be an expectation staff will just manage with the resources and budget they have,’’ Mr Hunter said.

‘‘The imbalance has led to a big increase in pressure and workload, there is also a feeling people are being fairly closely monitored.’’

Other academics confirmed high levels of stress were commonplace among their colleagues, but declined to be identified for fear of affecting their job prospects.

A university spokeswoman said the institution’s success ‘‘depends very much’’ on staff well-being.

She said the university provided a ‘‘comprehensive range’’ of health and wellness initiatives, focused on enhancing staff physical, mental and emotional health.

The university’s NeW Directions Strategic Plan 2013-2015, to be released tomorrow, is also expected to contain initiatives designed to reduce staff stress.

The university employs about 8600 people, the equivalent of  2890 full-time  positions.

Student numbers jumped 36per cent from 26,385 in 2005 at the time of the restructure, to 35,998 last year.

Over the same time, full-time equivalent staff numbers increased 17per cent.

‘‘Staff levels have not kept pace with student numbers and it affects the whole system from administration to academics,’’ Ms Ryan said.

‘‘Despite the fact that the leadership change at the university has been a positive, people are still anxious about the future.’’

 dpage@theherald.com.au

Workers feel pressure to bridge funding gap

 INCREASED pressure for universities to generate income means staff are working under unprecedented levels of stress,  a leading Australian academic says.

Psychology professor Tony Winefield began researching organisational stress in 1999 and published a report into workplace stress in Australian universities in 2002.

Professor Winefield said government funding was not keeping pace with the increasing costs faced by universities, and staff were feeling the impact. 

‘‘There is increasing pressure on academic staff to do things to generate income,’’ Professor Winefield said. ‘‘Whether it be [to] attract overseas, fee-paying students or obtain research grants, it is increasing all the time.’’

In a paper for the LH Martin Institute issued in June, policy analyst Professor Frank Larkins said increasing student-to-staff ratios in universities was ‘‘limiting professional engagement’’.

Professor Winfield said student-to-staff ratios at many universities had increased significantly.

‘‘It is an objective measure of workload increasing,’’ he said.

‘‘The pressures that were operating when we did our survey some time ago have not gone away, they have increased.’’  

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