Occupational stress and work-life balance in UK academics
The research presented in this thesis aimed to provide insight into the work-related wellbeing of a little-studied occupational group: academic employees working in universities in the UK. More specifically, it examined how aspects of the content and context of academic work were related to the health, job satisfaction, work-life balance, and turnover intentions of employees. The findings of an initial questionnaire study (Study 1) administered to a national sample of academic staff highlighted a number of features of work that were strong predictors of psychological distress and job satisfaction, and worthy of further investigation. Two main issues emerged from this initial research that were examined in greater depth in a subsequent national study of academic employees (Study 2). Firstly, the predictive validity Of two theoretical models of job stress (the Job Demand-Control-Support and the Effort-Reward Imbalance models) was tested in explaining strain outcomes. A model that comprised elements of both theoretical frameworks (most notably job control, rewards and overcommitment) was found to be a more effective predictor of some strain outcomes than either model independently. A combination of generic and job-specific demands was found to be a major predictor of job satisfaction. Secondly, the nature, predictors and outcomes of work-life conflict experienced by academics were investigated through the analysis of quantitative and qualitative data. A model that combined generic and job-specific job demands, working practices, supportive features of the working environment, and over-commitment predicted a considerable proportion of the variance in perceived conflict. Findings suggest that preferences for work-life integration are subject to considerable variation, as are the strategies utilised by academics to minimise conflict between work and home. Although certain practices might facilitate work-life balance, others pose a risk to wellbeing. The final study (Study 3) introduced a longitudinal element to this programme of research. Comparisons between the findings of Studies 1 and 2 (conducted six years apart) found no significant improvement in levels of specific stressors and strains in the study period. Comparisons were also made between the overall levels of psychological health of academic staff and those reported by other professional groups and the general population of the UK. The very poor level of psychological health found amongst academics in 1998 remained stable in 2004; this gave cause for concern, as did the discrepancy between levels of job demands and social support found, and those recommended by Health and Safety Executive benchmarks for the management of specific job stressors. The findings of this research programme highlight the important role of the working environment in shaping the antecedents, experience and expression of occupational stress. It is therefore argued that a job-specific approach to the study of workplace stress has greater potential to aid the development of interventions to promote the wellbeing of employees. Based on the findings reported in this thesis, a range of strategies and initiatives are recommended that have the potential to improve the wellbeing and job satisfaction of academic employees in the light of growing concerns about recruitment and retention in the sector.