Stress, workload and mental health

This week is Our Mental Health Week at the University of Sheffield. The University and the Students’ Union have put together a programme of events to support discussion on mental health, following the high-profile announcement earlier this month that both institutions were the first signatories to a new charter on suicide prevention led by Sheffield’s very popular Lord Mayor, ‘Magic’ Magid.


Here at Sheffield UCU, we welcome and support all and every effort made to engage with anti-stigma campaigns on mental health. We don’t want anyone to mistake what follows for an inaccurate conflation of stress and mental illness, and we don’t want to make the assumption that the work we do every day with members across the University who are experiencing difficulties at work is a universal experience.


What we do want to say, very clearly, is that the feedback we get from many of our members is that our workloads are often too high, and workplace stress is a significant issue for many of us. We know this because we do personal casework for members who need support. We see the fallout from extended periods of stress in multiple departments, and in every Faculty. We know that conversations about workload are difficult within many departments and that many of us feel we can’t switch off from work because of the pressures we face. We are very aware that we are required to produce ‘excellence’ in a context where sometimes it’s as much as we can do to fire-fight or keep our heads above water. We know that stress can lead to a deterioration in mental and physical health, in some cases profoundly.


Every single piece of amazing work that comes out of this University – and there are many  – is testament to the talent, skill and dedication of the staff and students that form our community. We think it’s an amazing community, and that collectively we achieve remarkable things. But we don’t believe this work should ever come at the expense of our wellbeing, our relationships, our leisure time, or our mental health.


We resist, strongly, the idea that stress is best acted on at an individual, case-by-case level. This is a structural problem that can be changed with sufficient political will to change it, and we believe in fighting for that change.


We know that marketisation, casualisation and other workplace inequalities are key factors in stress levels among our members. We know that declining real terms pay and increased workloads are a factor. We believe that the higher education sector as a whole is systemically under-investing in staff, with knock-on impacts for all of us, and we don’t believe that this is anything other than a response to a political climate that has privileged metrics and rankings over human beings.


We believe that staff and students make up the University, not flagship buildings. We think we all deserve to be valued by our employer.  We don’t want to add to your workloads or extend your to-do lists, but please vote YES and YES in the pay and equality ballot. Please talk to your colleagues about it. Please come to our meetings, get in touch with us, ask new colleagues and new PhD students to join UCU. The more of us there are, the better-placed we are to change things for the better.


We encourage all of you to have honest and open conversations with your colleagues and your managers about workload, stress and mental health. Please ask us for support if you need it –