I was referred to an excellent article in the Guardian
today by one of my PhD students. It is all about the demands imposed upon PhD students by universities and the impact that this has on their mental health. It was a particularly timely article as our Division has just set out a new ‘contract’ for our PhD students, which includes additional assessment points and guidance on the hours that are expected to be worked.
Now the Guardian article is pretty scary stuff and it talks about a research intensive university that is very different to Nottingham in the attitudes that the academics can get away with. I do not believe that any of my colleagues would be content to see students become mentally ill, nor would they fail to respond if they were made aware of students having problems. Having said that there is certainly the attitude that the students who do work at weekends, or who put in long night shifts are superior and more committed than those who work normal days, or (perish the thought) are part-time. My personal view is that the students who are doing 60 hour weeks are either inefficient or putting their health at risk. I do not condone it and would insist that all of my students take proper holidays and give time for themselves.
The article does strike an important cord though and the general points that it makes can be just as easily applied to staff as well as postgraduate students. I know far too many colleagues in my own area who are crippled by their workload and the need to integrate the demands of research, teaching and administration. Three of my colleagues have resigned their posts recently and left academia behind them in order to have a better life. I came close to it myself this year and I know that others have been close to that decision and stepped back from the brink. Stress is not uncommon and for some of us leads to ill-health and unhealthy behaviour.
The causes of the stress are complex. We can blame workload and how it is distributed, but that is maybe too simplistic. Everyone who works in any job has a workload and most people have periods when that workload is high, tiring and stressful. The academic twist is that the job is never done. Tasks are never complete- we are expected to manage research programmes and those roll on and on and on and on and we have the continual challenge of raising the funding for that research. It isn’t a demand from our employer that we get that funding (though there is some of that)- this demand comes from inside. I feel physically discomfited by not having funding to push forward the ideas that I want to research. There is a demand to keep on top of our subject areas so that we can teach effectively and do our research. And then we have to manage staff, juggle finances, teach students, innovate, inspire, mentor and trudge through endless administrative treacle. The job of the academic has no boundaries. Expectations are high and nobody says thank you. Ever.
It is perhaps a role that suits the personality of absolutely nobody. The ambitious go-getter is frustrated by the breadth of the job and the bits that hamper research aims. The low-flyer is crushed by the demand for excellence and those in-between become the willing or unwilling workhorses who are either over-deployed because they are too polite to say ‘no’, or isolated because they say it too often. And ah, there’s another point that contributes to poor mental health- the isolation. Being an academic can be a lonely task too. When things aren’t going well and we don’t have a big research team it is just too easy to disappear into an office all day with nobody to talk to.
The excellent Guardian article poses three questions:
“How do I tell myself that it’s OK to take time for me?”
“Have I worked so hard that illness has become normal?”
“How can I recover my relationships with my friends and family?”
I don’t have all of the answers to These questions, which is galling as I have a position of authority in my School and I take staffing issues seriously. I will tell others that it is OK to take time for themselves, but in reality I cannot say it to myself and mean it. I will work well into every evening and, yes I am sad enough to be dealing with email at weekends and on holiday. I often moan that a student once emailed me about her project on Christmas Day, but don’t really challenge myself for the fact that I checked it on Christmas Day. I don’t think that I have EVER used up my full annual leave allowance since I started in this job. I am not complaining- just acknowledging that I am stupid.
Have I worked so hard that illness has become normal? Err, yes.
How can I recover my relationships with my friends and family? Perhaps a better question for me to pose is ‘how can I teach my children that living this sort of life is not normal or acceptable?’ I can see my own kids picking up on what I do and how the same behaviours are developing in them. It isn’t good.
In my view it is time to take action about workloads, healthy work-life balance and the demands that we make upon our colleagues, and I will happily argue this point to the highest level in the University. I don’t know what the answers are, but I am willing to act as a conduit- so pass on your comments and I will try to form some coherent arguments to agitate for change.