Someone close to me lost their job not too long ago. In fact they were sacked. The job involved early starts and late finishes; a lot of travel; the remuneration didn’t match the skills and requirements for the post. Ultimately all this got too much and led to mental health problems and the job ending. Given I’m an academic, you might be presuming this was another academic. In fact it wasn’t – it was someone in a fairly hum-drum job in a private sector engineering company.
I write this because us academics are at it again – apparently academia makes us heroin addicts. There are two points I want to make – first on academic exceptionalism; and secondly on the damage this discourse does.
The reason I recounted the story above is to demonstrate that the damage that work does is not unique to academia, as many seem to think it is. In a low-productivity, low-wage, economy like that of the UK or US, stress and long hours are the norm for most workers. And that stress is worse – it’s the grinding, drudgery stress that the work of Michael Marmot showed slowly kills you. As academics we are far more likely to experience the fight-or-flight stress that actually helps you do your job better.
So, this genre of complaining frustrates me because it makes academia seem exceptional and does not fully acknowledge we are in a much wider economy that needs much broader reform to make it a better place to work, for everyone.
It also frustrates me because of the patterns it recreates in our labour and the damage this does. When I was a doctoral researcher my supervisors made me take leave, made me work normal hours because that is the right way to work. I completed my thesis on time. Their advice is still important to me now as I work to ensure my weekends are free for me to do my own activities and that I can keep up to my six hours of fitness training a week.
Some of the doctoral researchers in my Faculty put a funny sign on the door of their office about stress. This depressed me greatly – they shouldn’t feel stressed at this stage. Yet it seems normal for doctoral students to expect to work weekends, to burst into tears in the office, to take on far too much because that is what they think is expected of them. While we complain about the working practices of the academy, we recreate them in our apprentices and don’t teach them better coping strategies or support them in working with, and against, the institution to excel.
So, in this basic way this “openness” to the stresses of the job causes more damage – it creates patterns people then think they are expected to recreate. But it also prevents a lot of positive action. One thing I find interesting is the way “academia” or “the university” is nominalised within this discourse – it gains agency which it simply does not have: “academia” creates metrics we have to meet; “the university” is now an audit regime controlling our lives. No – a university, one institution, the one you work for, in your labour relations, creates these things. And that, for me, should be our focus for action.
Thinking in this way – bottom-up – produces a space for change for organised labour, and also institutional processes, such as Athena SWAN. Universities, as employees, have specific statutory duties, primarily around health and safety. If your work is making you mentally unwell, the university has a duty of care to support you. If it does not do this, it is breaking the law and can be sued – this is the everyday casework of our union officers. We also need to explicitly recognise that we work in large, multi-million pound institutions that employ hundreds or thousands of staff. Thus, if something does not get done because we did not have time to do it, it is not our fault. It is, ultimately, the Vice-Chancellor’s fault. In reality it is the fault of the institution. The whole point of large bureaucracies is they should be structured so that if something goes wrong, there’s another bit of the bureaucracy ready to take over. We need to stop feeling guilty and damaging our mental health. It is not our fault.
As managers (I’m now taking line management roles) we also need to manage better – recognise that our staff have families and other pressures and give them the slack to do what they want to do. We need to recognise the excellence of our staff and stop talking about how “we all cope in this situation” and say “we all work really hard, perform excellently, and look at all the brilliant stuff we manage to do”. We also need to recognise the expertise and skill of all our staff, get away from the stupid division between “admin” and “academia”, and recognise the professional skills to support us in excelling at our academic roles.
After, yet another, horribly negative “anonymous academic” piece in the Guardian, I emailed them and asked if they would like a positive one. After an email was exchanged I never heard anything again. It seems we want to share the stories of the damage the bogeyman of “academia” does, but we don’t want to share the ways to cope, the ways to make things better. If you share the positive stories, you’re pilloried for being a slave to the neoliberal university, or for not fully recognising your privilege. But many of us are not superstars, we’re just trying to create better ways of working in better institutions.edit/ After 48 hours this post has had over 900 hits which has been quite a surprise. So I feel I should embellish it with this, which was made for me by Pat Lockley as part of our banter on teh Twitterz.