With greater demands being placed on workers and working conditions becoming more uncertain in tough economic times, it is no surprise Canadians are feeling stressed. According to a Statistics Canada report (Canadian Community Health Survey – Mental health and well-being), nearly 70% of Canadians are stressed at work, with 5.4% of individuals indicating they are extremely stressed.
Occupational stress is defined as a negative experience that results from an interaction with other people or the work environment that can have psychological, physical and behavioural consequences. In the workplace, the negative consequences of occupational stress can also carry substantial financial burdens in addition to acute and chronic health conditions. A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Alberta, University of Toronto, and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health found that the overall economic burden of stress in Canada is approximately $51 billion per year.
Although academic careers have traditionally been seen as prestigious, secure, and not stressful, the effects of neoliberalism have significantly changed the way academics conduct their work. Higher student to instructor ratios, increased demands to conduct and publish research, the need to attract external funding, the proliferation of contract work, and slow advancement processes are only some of the reasons academics are feeling burned out. The phenomenon of stress in academia has been studied heavily in the United Kingdom and Australia, with most study results indicating stress levels far higher than the general population.
Academic Workers: A Canadian Perspective
A study conducted by researchers from Saint Mary’s University, McMaster University and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) in 2010 provided the first reliable information about stress in Canadian academic environments. Results from a web-based questionnaire that was distributed to CAUT members showed that women and academic workers between the ages 30 to 39 years were the most stressed individuals. Longer-termed contract workers and tenure track professors also indicated higher levels of stress in comparison to tenured professors. Unfortunately, sessional staff who work contract-to-contract were not included in the study.
Mental Health A Bargaining Issue
Today, more employers are beginning to recognize the negative impact that stress has on the workplace. From absenteeism to poor productivity and increased insurance claims, the health and economic costs of stress are severe. With higher levels of stress being reported by academic workers than individuals in the general population, immediate action is necessary to curb the negative impact that stress has on the health, productivity, and overall wellbeing of academic workers.
Currently the Unit 1 bargaining team is working on proposals that would address some of the factors that lead to increased occupational stress for teaching assistants and course instructors. Some of these proposals would address high student to instructor ratios, the need for more sick days, and low Health Care Spending Account coverage for mental health concerns. Additionally, the need for mental health training for Unit 1 members to recognize and address their own and their students’ stress is being considered.