Report from the workload review - November 2020

To summarise, from the data seen by the Workload Review Group there is ample evidence from survey that staff are working over their contracted time, and that this differs by role and gender. New cross sector data corroborate this. There is limited, but some evidence (from UoA, the THE 2018 report and the Erikson paper) that this has a negative impact on wellbeing. There is evidence that some drivers of workload (staff numbers, staff student ratio) are worsening, and that stress related counselling is increasing (in UoA and the sector). The GHQ12 results indicate an overall moderately high level of mental ill health and a high level in some sections and role/gender combinations. Most indicators reported here differentiate between genders meaning they will play an intersectional role in the equality objectives of UoA.  Where comparisons are possible, the data clearly show big differences between roles and sections of the University.

You can read the full report here

Appendix 1

Appendix 2

Appendix 3

Appendix 4



The legal and policy environment

Under the Working Time Regulations (1998) no employee can be made to work over 48 hrs a week against their will and no-one can be sacked for refusing to do so. Work-related stress is a Health and Safety issue in Law: Employers have duties under the “Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations,” 1999, to assess the risk of stress-related ill health arising from work activities and under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, to take measures to control that risk. Work-related Stress is ‘the second most commonly reported cause of occupational ill health in Great Britain’, exceeded only by musculoskeletal disorders (Government statistics). It is one of the three priorities of the Health and Safety Executive, announced in September 2017; the Priority Plan includes developing indicators to measure stress risk management performance across institutions. As the independent review on mental health in the workplace commissioned by the Prime Minister and published in October makes clear, workplace stress is a leading factor in employee mental ill-health (Thriving at Work, 2017). This report provides a sound justification based on empirical evidence as to why organisations need to proactively support and boost the mental health of all staff.


The link between workload and work-related ill health

Government statistics report that work-related stress accounts for 37% of all ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health. There are 1.3 million suffers of work related ill-health, causing a loss of 25.7 million working days in 2016/2017 and costing the UK £9.7 billion for the cases alone ( Forty percent of these cases involve mental illness, while 39% are related to musculo-skeletal problems. Prevalence is statistically higher than average in the education sector where mental ill-health accounts for 51% of all ill-health cases.   In 2015, the leading journal The Lancet published a meta-analysis on the topic of workload and risk of cardiovascular disease. Results from 25 studies involving more than half a million participants revealed a statistically significant trend linking increased work over 40 hrs a week to risk of heart disease. Of serious concern, is that a 27% and 33 % increase in stroke risk emerged when participants worked between 49-55 hrs a week and over 55 hrs respectively (Kivimaki et al. 2015).


Evidence of a problem

There is limited data on the amount of work actually done by University employees.

In the 2016 Trades Union Congress (TUC) biennial survey of safety representatives, safety reps were asked to identify the main hazards of concern to workers at their workplace. This highlighted stress; overwork; bullying/harassment and long hours as the four most frequently cited concerns. In all cases these hazards were significantly higher in the Education sector than the overall norm.

Research conducted by UCU in 2016 involved surveying 12,000 academics. Results revealed an average workload of 50.9 hrs per week across pre and post-92 institutions. Further analysis showed that 39% of academics work over 50 hrs a week, 28.5% over 55 hrs a week. The average workload for professors was 56.1 hrs and “teaching assistants” was 54.9 hrs. In this survey, the University of Aberdeen reported a figure of 52.1 hrs based on 137 respondents, which is well above average.  TRAC data acquired from 62 Aberdeen UCU members in 2015 providing 107 data points (and published in the Gaudie) revealed an average working week of 54.2 hrs with 45% of working weeks being over 55 hrs.  TRAC data from 20 academics in SBS (not selected based on union membership) in 2016 revealed an average working week of 58 hrs.

While The Times Higher Education report - The Best University Workplace (2015) which surveyed 4,174 university workers did not provide data on working hours, it revealed that 32.7% of all staff and 46.3% of academics agree that “my work has a negative impact on my health” while 66% of academics (vs 30% of non-academics) indicate they work too much and 44% of academics do not agree that “the workload assigned to me is reasonable”.   

The staff satisfaction survey conducted by the University of Aberdeen in 2014 (response rate 38%) revealed that 58.3% of staff work over their contracted hours but this was not broken down by role. Information acquired by a Freedom of Information request for the raw data of this survey and seen by some of the AUCU committee reveals that this rises to 75% for academics (who reportedly gave a 65% response rate) revealing that excessive workload is not a problem distributed evenly across roles within the University and showing that survey data that are not disaggregated are not informative. AUCU had an abundance of anecdotal evidence that most academics do not take their allocated holidays. Some data corroborating this are available through Athena Swan submissions.

A survey conducted by the Guardian in 2014 on workload and mental health in academia surveyed 2561 people with experience of mental health problems mostly in the UK. Two thirds report their mental ill-health was a direct result of their work with about 60% choosing workload from a list of 8 factors as the main cause.  Note also, the vast majority of those responding did not reveal their problems to their colleagues highlighting the major challenges in truly assessing the impact of mental health on work and vice versa. Research published this year by RAND Europe commissioned by the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust (prompted by concern over the mental health of researchers) found that “Levels of burnout appear higher among university staff than in general working populations and are comparable to ‘high-risk’ groups such as healthcare workers” (page 15). They also found that women were more exposed to stress than men, highlighting the probability that workload and workload-related stress is intrinsically linked to gender equality issues. 

Together, the evidence above suggests that i) workload is considered excessive by a large proportion of the workforce in universities, ii) this is not distributed evenly across roles, iii) it is considered by employees to be having an impact on their wellbeing, iv) the impact is likely to be substantially underreported and under-appreciated, v) it appears to affect women more than men and vi) while the issue is recognised as a sector problem, the University of Aberdeen appears to be or perhaps is, more severely affected than the UK average.   


Approach at the University of Aberdeen

UCU have contributed to a 2018 review of the "Policy on the Management of Work Related Stress" (and associated guidance notes) and are appreciative of the partnership approach in which constructive suggestions from UCU (both locally in AUCU and via a national UCU H&S Official) have been incorporated.

The extant (at the time of writing) "Policy on the Management of Work Related Stress" indicates that “Stress Risk Assessments will be carried out as part of the ongoing programme of staff surveys and Healthy Working Lives surveys. Statistical data from Occupational Health and sickness absence trends may also form part of the risk assessment process. Information gathered in these ways will be used to identify areas for improvement and action plans will be implemented by stakeholders and representative groups. No individual case data will be identifiable in this process.” It also states that “We commit to using the HSE Management Standards within the University to help identify sources of harmful levels of stress at work with a view to minimising the likelihood of stress (through risk assessments) and dealing with individual cases which arise”.

AUCU sees almost no evidence that these commitments are currently being honoured. The University prepares a strategic risk register every six months for Court.  Statistics on Work Related Stress are absent in these reports.

The staff survey which took place in 2018 is the first since 2014. A four year break between surveys especially in a period of flux and uncertainty for staff is deeply concerning as this will constitute a considerable gap in knowledge for the University. Disaggregated data of the previous Staff Satisfaction Survey in 2014 have not been shared with UCU despite requests – although UCU gained access to some of the data from a FOI request launched by a private individual.

In the interim four year period, AUCU have sought to work constructively with management on the survey, to address some long standing issues and concerns. As clearly and consistently articulated, the concern most deeply held by AUCU is that of anonymity of respondents. In 2018, management consulted AUCU on including the twelve-item general health questionnaire (GHQ-12, a screening device used to identify minor psychiatric disorders) within the staff survey. AUCU agreed on the basis that this would be run as a separate, optional and completely anonymous section of the survey. Ultimately, management elected to launch the staff survey and refused to honour this agreement; negotiations broke down and AUCU (on a clear mandate from members) withdrew support from the survey.

The UCU workload team has been involved in negotiations with senior management for over two years with an invitation to help analyse TRAC data for evidence of inappropriate workload pressure.  Despite the fact that there are simple and effective ways to anonymise the identity of individuals, senior management has refused to share these data first on the grounds of data protection and latterly on the excuse that there was not the staff resource to do it.

AUCU recognise that the University of Aberdeen has established an ongoing Wellbeing initiative.  While this is a welcome development, it seems it is mostly targeting physical and food-related well-being rather than tackling the biggest well-being issue that faces the staff, namely workload.

Recently there have been two parallel developments implemented in the regulation of terms and conditions which have been led by the University. These are the production of individual school-level workload models, and the modification of the contract of employment to state specifically that 37.5 hrs is the normal working week. AUCU notes that while school-level workload models have been developed there remains a lack of transparency about what individual workload models might look like within a school, let alone across schools and the university more broadly. This lack of transparency means that individual workloads often can’t be reliably compared by the individuals to whom they pertain. During the development of the models, it has clearly been stated that the normal distribution of work for an academic on the teaching and research track would be 40% teaching, 40% research and 20% administration, which is guided, we understand, by the fact that this roughly matches the operating income to the University from its funders, and matches sector norms. This is despite evidence from TRAC data (2011-2014) that on average academics in some colleges actually spend only about 20% of their time on teaching, and more like 55% on research. This highlights the underlying problem that to achieve the academic expectations of being a research-active academic probably requires a research workload that does not fit into the 15 hrs per week suggested by the new workload model (as 40% of a 37.5 hr week). The limited evidence we have suggests it is near double that being 55% of a 52 hr week = 29 hrs a week. AUCU also notes that TRAC data are not collected for staff on the teaching – scholarship track and that currently there appears to be no reliable method to determine what hours those on this track undertake and whether the 85 % teaching & administration and 15% research accurately reflects a fair distribution or accurate quantification of their duties.

The inclusion of a 37.5 hrs working week within the contract is a welcome development and it must be seen as a target to which we should be aiming. At the moment it is radically at odds with reality and if efforts are not taken to rectify that, it will undermine the relationship between staff and the University Management.

The introduction of formal workload models for each school could be seen as either a positive or negative development for tackling the issue of excessive, unhealthy workloads. The positive aspects relate to the individual being able to see, through the transparent reporting of workload, that there are activities they should drop without neglecting the duty they have to their colleagues. The negative impact of these models would accrue if they either fail to accurately account for the workload that is actually done and required to do the job, or if they are used to make people currently working acceptable hours work more because their colleagues are working unhealthy hours.  In the case of the former, it is important to try to quantify the accuracy of the workload models (for example by using TRAC data to provide ground-truthing). For the latter, it will be critical that the models are not used as part of a performance management tool that judges success in a way that is distorted by excessive working of some individuals and therefore drives workloads up rather than down.


Wider context of workloads and the University Sector

While this paper deals with the health and safety issues associated with workload, it should be recognised that there are wider implications of excessive workloads within the University Sector.  Briefly, we identify the most important (in no particular order) are i) gender equality and fairness to carers, ii) the quality of the student experience, iii) the creativity and innovativeness of teaching and research, iv) the sense of belonging of staff to the University, v) the environmental impact of work activities, vi) recruitment and long-term sustainability of the profession, vii) social responsibility and reputation, viii) presentee-ism.  If this paper stimulates discussion and negotiation on workload, these issues could/should be included.


Raising the profile
  • Work with AUCU and UCU nationally to lobby government, UUK and UCEA to recognise the issue of workload as a critical one in industrial relations, health and safety management and as a political priority, and impel them all to act on it

  • Raise the profile of workload in the institutional mind-set (e.g. by strengthening wording of vision and strategy)

  • Commit to all six core standards outlined in the report ‘Thriving at Work’ specifically:

    1. Produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work place

    2. Develop mental health awareness among employees

    3. Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling

    4. Provide your employees with good working conditions

    5. Promote effective people management

    6. Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing

  • Include workload-related ill-health including stress into the Key Performance Indicators and the Institutional Risk Register

  • Ensure the school level workload models are transparent, comparable and available to all

  • Ensure, through policy wording and local policy implementation (including through training of managers) that workload models are not used to increase workloads, but rather are used to reduce them towards the 37.5 hrs a week target


Health & Safety
  • Ensure health and safety structures are documented and easily accessible on the University website (eg H&S committees; H&S departments/managers; duty holders; competent persons; responsible persons; safety management systems).

  • Equalise the voting numbers of employee and employer representatives on the H&S Committee

  • Have workload and work-related stress as a standing item for H&S Committee and PNCC meetings

  • Utilise a partnership approach to audit existing work-related stress risk management against the HSE Stress Management Standards guidance.

  • Utilise all available data sources to inform the organisational stress risk assessment process and the employer’s legal duty to manage risk.


Joint workload working group
  • Mutually agree terms of reference for a joint working group on Workload, aligned to PNCC and the H&S committee

  • Establish a joint workload working group


  • Increase the frequency of staff surveys

  • Improve staff survey alignment to the HSE Management Standard

  • Work with UCU to address staff survey concerns (particularly anonymity of responses) and improve the staff survey completion rate

  • Make high quality (anonymised and user friendly) data from the staff survey, TRAC, HR data on holidays and data on mental illness and causes of absence available so that it can be internally and independently scrutinized as indicators of workload levels and related ill health.

  • Work with AUCU to use TRAC data to see trends in workloads across time, evaluate the accuracy of school workload models as an indicator that policy changes and interventions are having an impact on workloads.

  • Ensure that reliable data on hours of work are collected for staff on all tracks.


  • Allocate sufficient health and safety staff resource to reflect the importance of workload related ill health including mental illness.



Further information is available from Mr Derek Dawson, Chair, Aberdeen UCU, email (tel 01224 273734) or Professor Adam Price, Workload Officer, Aberdeen UCU, email (tel 01224 272690)