Work­load and men­tal health

THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION -

The work­loads of peo­ple who work at uni­ver­si­ties ap­pear to be on the rise. About two-fifths of all univer­sity staff say that they have been work­ing longer hours dur­ing the work­ing week over the past three years.

The high­est pro­por­tion of aca­demic re­spon­dents work nine hours per week­day; this falls to eight hours for pro­fes­sional and sup­port staff. Aca­demics are twice as likely as pro­fes­sional staff to work 10 or more hours per week­day; 40 per cent of schol­ars say that they do so, com­pared with 20 per cent of non-aca­demics (see graph 1, right).

In­deed, one fe­male man­ager of a univer­sity in Europe says that her work-life bal­ance has im­proved since she left a pre­vi­ous aca­demic post. “You ac­tu­ally can close the of­fice doors

and go into the week­end with­out hav­ing the feel­ing of miss­ing out on pub­li­ca­tion, col­lab­o­ra­tion or fund­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties,” she says.

Mean­while, 31 per cent of schol­ars and 27 per cent of ad­min­is­tra­tors typ­i­cally work on both days over the week­end. Nearly half of aca­demics typ­i­cally work one day at the week­end (49 per cent), com­pared with just over a third of pro­fes­sion­als (37 per cent). Two-fifths of schol­ars (40 per cent) tend to work six or more hours over the week­end; just 15 per cent of pro­fes­sional staff do so (see graph 2, right).

“Dur­ing the week I am con­stantly re­quired to at­tend meet­ings and deal with is­sues that are only pe­riph­er­ally re­lated to my roles. This means that any­thing that re­quires thought and my re­search must take place dur­ing evenings and week­ends,” says one pro­fes­sor at a UK univer­sity.

When she re­layed her con­cern that her work­load is “un­sus­tain­able”, the for­mer dean of her fac­ulty “brushed [it] off with com­ments such as: ‘There is no one else who is suf­fi­ciently se­nior to per­form all th­ese roles’, and im­plied threats about my sub­ject area be­ing closed down if we do not meet the set KPIS”.

Sev­eral other aca­demics also ref­er­ence se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tors who ei­ther con­trib­uted to or failed to ad­dress their heavy work­loads.

“Much of the in­creased bur­den re­lates to new ideas from pro­lif­er­at­ing ad­min­is­tra­tors, theme deans and se­nior man­agers aimed at polic­ing staff, tick­ing so-called met­ric boxes and de­vel­op­ing vi­sions. Real prob­lems (chaotic timeta­bles, in­ad­e­quate es­tate, in­ad­e­quate

re­sources and sup­port) are ig­nored and/or de­nied, of­ten in pseudo-hippy newspeak,” says a pro­fes­sor at a Rus­sell Group in­sti­tu­tion in the north of Eng­land.

Another pro­fes­sor at a re­search-in­ten­sive univer­sity in the south of Eng­land cites “end­less bu­reau­cracy de­vel­oped by lum­ber­ing, over­staffed, over­thought, over­paid se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tors” as the main is­sue. “Most are not com­pe­tent to project man­age, so we of­ten have to do their jobs as well as our own re­search and teach­ing. This adds sev­eral hours a week of work we aren’t par­tic­u­larly good at or mo­ti­vated by,” he re­ports.

Oth­ers say that work­load al­lo­ca­tion mod­els, which are de­signed to pro­mote a healthy work­ing en­vi­ron­ment, do lit­tle to help.

“There is a ten­dency to point to work­load

al­lo­ca­tions and to say ‘you have time al­lo­cated for this, what is the prob­lem?’ de­spite work­load al­lo­ca­tion ma­tri­ces be­ing un­der­pinned by enor­mous un­der­es­ti­ma­tions of the time taken for ba­sic tasks,” a pro­fes­sor at a Welsh re­search univer­sity says.

“I feel very stressed. Work is nev­erend­ing, never good enough, lu­cra­tive enough [or] im­pact­ful enough, so there is al­ways a lot of pres­sure to do more,” adds another pro­fes­sor at a re­search univer­sity in the north of Eng­land.

The work­load of a se­nior lec­turer at an English post-92 univer­sity “is only kept be­low 60 hours per week by ne­glect­ing cer­tain du­ties. Pri­mar­ily, re­search suf­fers first. To ad­e­quately ful­fil all of my teach­ing and ad­min­is­tra­tive re­spon­si­bil­i­ties would eas­ily see me work­ing 70 to 80 hours per week.”

But not all aca­demics say that work­load is an is­sue.

“I am very happy with my work-life bal­ance and with leave en­ti­tle­ment and ex­pec­ta­tions for work­ing hours in my in­sti­tute. I’m un­sure why so many aca­demics feel they have to pun­ish them­selves and the qual­ity of their work by work­ing in­cred­i­bly long hours while pub­li­cis­ing and com­plain­ing about this – academia doesn’t have to be an arms race, and it is en­tirely pos­si­ble to have a healthy work-life bal­ance,” says a post­doc­toral re­searcher at a Scot­tish re­search in­ten­sive.

Aca­demics also tend to go on fewer hol­i­days away from home than pro­fes­sional staff do. The largest pro­por­tion of aca­demic re­spon­dents (33 per cent) had one such hol­i­day in the past year, while pro­fes­sion­als are most likely to have had two breaks (also 33 per cent). Two or more hol­i­days were en­joyed in the past year by 56 per cent of aca­demics and 62 per cent of pro­fes­sional and sup­port staff.

How­ever, one en­gi­neer­ing and tech­nol­ogy pro­fes­sor at a UK univer­sity says that he has not had a hol­i­day “since 1994”, while a se­nior lec­turer at a post-92 univer­sity in the north west of Eng­land finds it “al­most im­pos­si­ble” to get away: “We are not al­lowed to book hol­i­days dur­ing term time, but we are also not al­lowed to book hol­i­days over exam pe­ri­ods, mark­ing pe­ri­ods, in­ter­nal exam board meet­ings or course de­vel­op­ment meet­ings. This means that al­though we get 35 days [of hol­i­day] a year, we ac­tu­ally only have op­por­tu­nity to use about 14.”

“I haven’t taken a hol­i­day of a full week in more than three years,” adds a so­cial sciences pro­fes­sor in the US, while a lec­turer at a Rus­sell Group univer­sity in the south west of Eng­land says that she has “had to mark course­work ev­ery Christ­mas hol­i­day for five years”.

A se­nior lec­turer at a post-92 in­sti­tu­tion says that he has “been told ex­plic­itly that by tak­ing hol­i­days I am mak­ing oth­ers do more work”.

Schol­ars are 17 per­cent­age points more likely to re­port that they worked while on hol­i­day (86 per cent) than their non-aca­demic col­leagues are (69 per cent). Of those who did work while on hol­i­day (de­fined as in­clud­ing an­swer­ing work-re­lated emails), 65 per cent of aca­demics say that do­ing so took up 5 per cent or more of their hol­i­day, com­pared with

42 per cent of pro­fes­sional and sup­port staff (see graph 3, page 37).

“I was sup­posed to take a se­cond hol­i­day, but can­celled it at the last minute. I saw no point in pay­ing to sit in a ho­tel work­ing, so I just stayed at home and worked in­stead,” says a lec­turer at a Mid­lands re­search-in­ten­sive.

For oth­ers, the is­sue is not so much time as money. “Due to the hours I am al­lot­ted and the money that I make in those hours, I can­not af­ford to take hol­i­days,” says a re­search as­sis­tant on a tem­po­rary con­tract in the US. “When I do have time off, it is spent at home, and I still have to ded­i­cate time to my job.”

Sev­eral aca­demics also re­port book­ing hol­i­day in order to have time to com­plete re­search, while oth­ers say that their man­agers ex­pect them to work dur­ing their time off.

“My boss flat-out re­fuses to ap­prove hol­i­day leave re­quests un­less I con­firm in writ­ing that I will re­main in full email con­tact the en­tire time,” re­ports a post­doc­toral re­searcher at an Aus­tralian univer­sity.

“I’m ex­pected to work on my days away from the of­fice, re­gard­less of whether they’re the week­end or va­ca­tion. Fail­ing to re­spond to emails within 24 hours is con­sid­ered a sign that you’re not com­mit­ted to your job,” says an ad­min­is­tra­tor at a Cana­dian univer­sity.

“Work­load is the main is­sue we have to con­tend with th­ese days. It is af­fect­ing men­tal and phys­i­cal health and it seems to keep get­ting worse ev­ery year,” adds one pro­fes­sor at a Rus­sell Group univer­sity in the north of Eng­land.

A sense of an un­man­age­able work­load is of­ten blamed for rais­ing stress and anx­i­ety lev­els. Our smaller, sup­ple­men­tary sur­vey sug­gests that this is par­tic­u­larly the case among aca­demics. Male aca­demics are the most likely to say that work neg­a­tively af­fects their men­tal health “a lot”: 31 per cent give this an­swer, com­pared with 26 per cent of fe­male aca­demics and just 17 per cent of pro­fes­sional staff (see graph 4, left; as pro­fes­sional staff an­swered the sup­ple­men­tary sur­vey in rel­a­tively small num­bers, we have not sub­di­vided their re­sponses by gen­der).

Pro­fes­sional staff are also the most likely group of re­spon­dents to be able to switch off from work “of­ten” or “al­ways” when they are at home: 24 per cent are able to do so, com­pared with just 6 per cent of male aca­demics and 7 per cent of fe­male ones (see graph 5, left). Just un­der half of both groups say that their abil­ity to switch off has wors­ened in the past three years.

“Many times I feel stressed, and there are nights that I wake up at 2am or 3am think­ing about the work I haven’t com­pleted that needs to get done,” says an ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tant at a US univer­sity.

Sev­eral re­spon­dents add that leave of ab­sence be­cause of sick­ness among col­leagues has in­creased. A pro­fes­sor at a re­search univer­sity in the Mid­lands says that work­load and work pres­sures have “driven me to at­tempt sui­cide on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions”. And a se­nior lec­turer at a post-92 univer­sity adds that his univer­sity “gives no time for per­sonal life”.

“It’s a can­cer that eats away your life,” he adds.

“Stop con­stant rein­ven­tion of the wheel: work­loads are just about, at a stretch, man­age­able if we are left alone to get on with our jobs, but keel­ing up to speed with what­ever is this week's man­age­rial hob­by­horse inevitably pushes things over the edge"

Se­nior lec­turer at a mod­ern un­ver­sity in the north west of Eng­land

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