UK Higher Education staff experiences of moral injury during the COVID-19 pandemic

Paul Hanna, Mark Erickson, Carl Walker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Jonathan Shay argued that social, relational and institutional contexts were central to understanding moral injury and conceptualised moral injury as a normative response to the betrayal of an individual’s understanding of what is right by a more senior/authoritative ‘other’. Using the conceptual lens of moral injury, this paper investigates academic staff experiences of HE during the COVID-19 pandemic and explores the rapid transition back to face-to-face teaching that took place in autumn 2020. To collect data we used an online survey that opened in January 2021 and ran until the end of March 2021. 663 complete questionnaires were received across the survey period. The questionnaire was comprised of ten topic-related questions, each of which included follow up sub-questions and also invited participants to write in additional information. The majority of participants felt that during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic they had acted in ways that put their own health and wellbeing at risk. Of those who had acted in ways that put their health and wellbeing at risk they believed that their senior management were the most responsible for them acting in such ways, followed by the UK government. Qualitative data showed a systemic absence of leadership in the sector during the time, a sense of betrayal of staff and students by senior management and the government, and feelings of compulsion to act in ways which put lives at risk. On the basis of these results we argue that there could be synergies between the situation facing healthcare staff and academics during the pandemic. Many of the experiences of HE academic staff during the pandemic reported to us in this research are resonant with the concepts of betrayal and Moral injury and resulted in affective responses which we understand here in relation to feelings of guilt, shame, and anger, leading ultimately to poor mental health and wellbeing. This paper discusses implications for the HE sector going forward
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-18
Number of pages18
JournalHigher education: the international journal of higher education research
Publication statusPublished - 11 Nov 2022


  • Higher education
  • Staff experiences
  • COVID-19
  • Moral injury
  • Management


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