Two people sitting opposite each other talking while one takes notes in a bookIn the Australian higher education sector, high email volumes and increasing levels of psychological strain (work stress) can affect employees' health and well-being. These pressures are likely to have additional direct consequences on the recruitment and retention of high quality academic staff and the teaching of future professionals with implications for future GDP. ​As Australia’s public university sector contributes nearly $25 billion per year to the national economy,  its workforce is vital for the sector to contribute effectively to the national innovation and science agenda and deliver high quality research and teaching to over one million enrolled students.

Digital communication facilitates contact and collaboration between academic staff, students and industry. However, digital communication also encompasses negative and pervasive elements to workers and organisations which  include interruption to concentration, work flow disruption, 24/7 connectivity, and work-family conflict. In turn, digital communication is often associated with work-related stress.

The project uses a multilevel approach to examine how organisational factors such as university digital communication protocols and the climate for psychological health (Psychosocial Safety Climate [PSC]) influence individual email load and work pressure, health, sleep and recovery using a national longitudinal design and innovative diary research. The project will also examine how university employees proactively shape their own digital communication activities (job crafting) to improve their health and work engagement. It will address a gap in research by including casual employees, so that the findings benefit all occupational groups within universities. Expected outcomes include policy frameworks to manage digital communication practices within the Australian public university sector and other knowledge intensive industries.

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  1. Investigate university protocols (policies, practices, and procedures) in relation to digital communication (including email load) and expectations regarding communication (e.g., frequency, response time) and staff availability. 
  2. Determine whether the development of these university protocols are related to the organisational climate (specifically Psychosocial Safety Climate [PSC]).
  3. Determine the impact of university protocols on email load.
  4. Ascertain impact of email load and work stress on emotional exhaustion, sleep, occupational fatigue, recovery, and work engagement, and identify factors that reduce its impact (e.g., job crafting).
  5. Assess PSC levels in Australian universities against national Australian Workplace Barometer (AWB) benchmark.







  1. 2019 Interview Human Resources Directors to investigate university protocols relating to digital communication
  2. 2020-2021 Survey university staff (including casuals) in a four-wave multi-level online survey to measure emotional exhaustion, sleep, occupational fatigue, recovery, and work engagement; and identify factors that reduce the impact of work stress (e.g., job crafting)
  3. 2022 Employ diary studies via smartphones to incorporate a real time measure of email load, email volume, and reports of spill-over impact in the non-work domain by significant others in the home domain.
  4. 2022 Assess PSC levels in universities against national AWB benchmarks

The lost productivity cost of depression among employees is estimated to cost Australian employers $6.3 billion per year. In addition to assisting university management to attain healthier work environments, the project is likely to have translational importance for other Australian workers, communities and industries in three ways:

  1. Benefits to workers
    Provide empirical evidence of current levels of PSC experienced by personnel across universities which can be compared against national surveillance standards.
  2. Benefits and significance to Australia’s higher education sector
    Provide participating HR Directors with statistical information that compares their university acrossuniversities which will facilitate the translation of this new information into new protocols and practices to advocate for effective digital communication policies, stronger PSC, and higher levels of employee well-being.
  3. Benefits to industry and value for money
    Supply new insights for industries, particularly sectors that employ knowledge workers, so that best practices can be implemented.



Chief Investigators
Project Advisor
PhD Student
Advisory Group
  • Scott Burnell, President Australasian University Safety Association (AUSA), Health, Safety & Wellbeing | Corporate Services Griffith University
  • Rickie Kelly, Manager, Work Health and Safety, People Talent and Culture| University of South Australia
  • Kathy Harrington, Division Industrial Officer | National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU)
  • Associate Professor Steve Milanese, Director of the International Centre for Allied Health Evidence, Sansom Institute | University of South Australia  
  • Paul Sherlock, Chief Information Officer (Library and IT), Information Strategy and Technology Services | University of South Australia
  • Alan Brideson, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer | University of South Australia
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Pignata, S. (in press). 'Stress and well-being in Australian Universities', in In R. J. Burke & S Pignata, Handbook of Research on Stress and Well-being in the Public Sector. London: Edward Elgar.

Pignata, S., Winefield, A., Boyd, C., & Provis, C. (2018). A qualitative study of HR/OHS stress interventions in Australian universities. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health15, 103–119. DOI: 10.3390/ijerph15010103

Pignata, S., Lushington, K., Sloan, J., & Buchanan, F. (2015). Employees’ perceptions of email communication, volume and management strategies in an Australian university. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management37, 159–171. DOI: 10.1080/1360080X.2015.1019121

Burke, R. J. & Pignata, S. (2020). Handbook of Research on Stress and Well-being in the Public Sector. UK: Edward Elgar.
Pignata, S. ‘Stress in universities: Initiatives to enhance well-being’ In R. J. Burke & S. Pignata (2020). Handbook of Research on Stress and Well-being in the Public Sector. UK: Edward Elgar.

Conference Presentations
Pignata, S. (2019). 'Improving work environments in Australian universities'. Paper presented in a symposium on Quality of working life in universities: The contribution of EWOP psychologists, EAWOP Congress, Turin, Italy, 29 May - 1 June.