The proportion of support staff at Quebec universities who report serious or very serious psychological distress is 53.4 percent. This unsettling finding appears in a study (available in French only) conducted on behalf of the Conseil provincial du secteur universitaire (CPSU), a union organization that represents a number of postsecondary academic institutions in Quebec. This research into the psychological well-being of its members was carried out in collaboration with the Service aux collectivités (community services) office of the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM).
The results of this analysis are based on an online survey sent to 9,154 support staff (office personnel, professional trades, research professionals, technicians, etc.) in February and March 2018. A total of 921 people working at 11 Quebec universities responded to the survey.
Disturbing levels of psychological distress
The results of the survey reveal a high level of psychological distress, defined in the study as an unpleasant psychological state characterized by anxiety and depression, in nearly half of employees, regardless of their type of employment or the institution at which they work. “That means that it can’t be attributed to a subculture at one specific university, which makes this an unsettling pattern,” explains Sabrina Pellerin, a doctoral student in management sciences at UQAM and a co-author of the CPSU study.
The number of respondents who are suffering is not only high, but has also increased over the past 10 years. Previously, a study conducted in 2008 by researchers Caroline Biron, Jean-Pierre Brun and Hans Ivers, showed that 40.9 percent of support staff were suffering from psychological distress. This is a much higher proportion than in the Quebec population as a whole, of which just under 29 percent reported experiencing psychological distress, according to the Institut de la statistique du Québec.
“The increase can be explained in a number of different ways,” Ms. Pellerin notes. For example, profound changes at universities over the past 20 years (budget cuts, lack of reinvestment, Bill 100 in 2010 – which sought a return to balanced budgets) have had negative repercussions on support staff.
Among the various risk factors, the most significant is excessive employee workload, which Ms. Pellerin and her co-author believe is a direct consequence of funding cuts in academia. “What also emerges from our study is the conflict between work life and home life, which is related in a way to those excessive workloads,” she adds. Lack of recognition and a sense of unfairness in how promotions are awarded are also frequently mentioned by respondents as risk factors.
“If nothing is done, we run the risk of losing a lot of skilled employees,” argues Ms. Pellerin, who recommends reinvestment in Quebec’s universities. The consequences of this psychological distress are all too real; among those most strongly affected, nearly half are taking medication or consulting with a mental health professional. “People will be more likely to miss work, to come to work feeling unwell, or to think about quitting their jobs,” Ms. Pellerin observes. “These consequences represent significant costs and a real public health problem.”
A severe problem
While psychological distress is hardly limited to university employees, the problem is especially severe in this sector. In 2012, the lead report author, Julie Cloutier, conducted studies in call centres, which are known for their high degree of staff turnover. She found that 57 percent of workers there reported some form of psychological distress, just a few percentage points more than at Quebec universities.
Elsewhere in Canada, the problem is well-known but has not yet been studied extensively. “We didn’t find any studies on psychological distress in support staff at other Canadian universities,” Ms. Pellerin says. “There are no comparable studies in the rest of Canada,” confirms Karine Fortin, communications director at the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
“But this issue is a high priority in this sector,” Ms. Fortin adds. And indeed, austerity measures and the lack of resources for education remain a subject of concern throughout Canada. “The reasons that are mentioned in this study as sources of distress are just as intense everywhere else. There’s no reason to assume that things are any different in the rest of Canada,” Ms. Fortin concludes.