Saturday, 26 March 2016

I'm writing this while chasing the dragon

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.


  1. Dear Peter,

    Thank you for writing this blog. I may not agree with you on everything but I genuinely appreciate these sorts of discussions that attempt to tackle (and in your case, try to suggest solutions to) the problems facing many people in the academic sector. I had a few comments that I make below.

    Your first point is that posts like those found in academics anonymous suggest that the stresses and strains of academia are unique and perhaps doesn’t exist elsewhere. I disagree. Academics anonymous is situated in the Higher Education Network section of the Guardian and is explicitly targeted at individuals working in the academic or educational sector. These articles often gain a lot of attention, above and beyond the academic audience. This is partly because of the platform they are based on, but also because the anonymous academics (well some of them at least) tend to have a finely tuned knack of writing compelling arguments for a broad audience. We should read them within the context they are written and not extrapolate to other professions, presumably other professions have (or should have) outlets for employees to describe entrenched problems within any given sector.

    I think we could all agree that the problems facing academia are not unique and are probably (I don’t know) pertinent in many other fields and industries. But we shouldn’t shoot the messenger here. Many people who write in academics anonymous are trying to raise awareness of an issue that they, or their colleagues, are struggling to tackle, often after exhausting the proper and professional channels. You might not share the desperation of the authors (which clearly you don’t for the recent heroin edition), but don’t you think these discussions and issues serve an important function?

    Academia is a fairly fragile and unstructured profession for most. Young academics or those on temporary contracts can often find themselves trying to do the job of several individuals in the hope that, if they can manage this for a year or two, perhaps it will lead to a permanent position. Universities or managers (bad ones, of which there are many) will often pile on the work without proper thought and reflection about whether that person has too many responsibilities (remember that academic managers are overstretched too). Remember how hard it was to say ‘no’ to things when you were junior? Or, when you did say ‘no’, how bad other academics made you feel? The cumulative effect of this is a culture in which you take on more and more responsibilities but don’t complain because ‘everyone’ is in the same boat (this explains why many academics would prefer to write anonymously about these issues).

    Publications like academics anonymous can encourage academics to stand up for themselves, to recognise there are limits to what they can do, and sometimes (in the case of the heroin example) the consequences of letting this go too far.

    I think your points on the organised labour and institutional processes are excellent, as well as the call to manage better. Sadly I fear that many academic departments, including my own, are more toxic than this. Which does not make accommodating environment for the suggestions you make, although I wish it did. You should indeed write more positive pieces, particularly about ways to handle these stresses better and limitations we should place on our work lives and those of our staff. This is barely ever mentioned.

    Thank you for this piece.

    Conflict of interest: I have previously written an anonymous academics piece for the Guardian (not the heroin one).

    1. Thank you for this lenghty response and for taking the time to reply. I'll be honest and say that I've been taken aback by the response to this blog post. I really wasn't expecting it at all.

      I'll pick up on three of your points which I will summarise as I have understood them. Firstly, on the natures of stories told - I agree that sharing of some non-positive stories is useful for creating a community of practice. However, I personally feel that there is an unrelenting negativity in the stories of HE told that makes it difficult to say "actually I'm doing OK and this is how" and also I do worry, as I wrote, about the impact on the next generation of academics who now expect to be in this state.

      You suggest that some institutions, such as your own, are dysfunctional and aren't open spaces for this sort of conversation. This is something I recognise from my own research with academics on academic practice. However, my own experience in institutions has been different, and also there is good evidence that institutions without this culture perform better on all the metrics on which we are managed - for example recent evidence from HEFCE suggested places with a more supportive workplace culture do better in research metrics. This suggest institutional change and win-wins can happen.

      Finally, you mention that the pressure on ECRs to always say yes is there. I do recognise this, but one of the key bits of support I have received is the skill to prioritise. I think there is also a much bigger issue for ECRs which I would like to research regarding the supply of PhD qualified people into academia,the mismatch with demand, and what we might do about this.

      I don't pretend to have answers; these are mainly just thoughts, although supported by some research on higher education practises. But hopefully I've started conversations.

  2. This is something I recognise from my own research with academics on academic practice. However, my own experience in institutions has been different, and also there is good evidence that institutions without this culture perform better on all the metrics on which we are managed.

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