Tag Archives: kindness

Stress fractures: one year on

It is about a year ago since I posted The Kindness of Strangers. It quickly found a lot of readers worldwide. As it travelled, the Times Higher asked my permission to republish it on their blog where it trended for several days. I was obliged to take it down by my former employer, and they forbade me to write any more on stress. The events that unfolded after that are alluded to in this recent piece. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/why-audit-culture-made-me-quit I quit my job to reclaim my academic freedom, and I am now reposting the original piece below.

The post was never about just one university. It was clear from the responses that the issues resonated with many academics at different institutions in different countries, and they continue to do so. Management by metrics is not the provenance of any one higher education system, and neither is the damage to mental health that the pressure to ‘perform’ to targets causes. It is clear in the piece that although the effects of stress were observable among colleagues I know personally – again at different institutions – I am also drawing on the widespread reporting of academic stress in multiple blogs.

Students – I have learned so much about stress and mental health from working with you, and from talking with you about this. I know you understand this, but it bears repeating. The working conditions of the staff who teach you, are your learning conditions. Whatever justifications or denials are uttered, this remains the case. Lecturers who are made ill through work overload cannot give you the time or energy you deserve. In writing this I want to make a difference, and I think it might, because Kate Bowles tweeted this today:

Depression KB snip

Kate also pointed me towards this extraordinary piece by Dr Simon McCormick https://brokentoydotblog.wordpress.com/2017/03/10/danger-breakdown-ahead/  who narrates the feelings and events that led to his breakdown at work as a consultant in emergency medicine. And then I knew I should re-post in tribute to all those who suffer stress at work.

The kindness of strangers (March 2016)

This week I chose to open up to students about the relentless stress faced by academic staff in universities. Enough of the omerta, the conspiracy of silence.

What made me do this? Well, I have watched one after another of my colleagues taking sick leave, seeking help from occupational health, reporting loss of sleep or just looking exhausted. It is a bleak picture, but it is about to ratchet up a notch further. We learn that the government plans to impose a Teaching Excellence Framework on universities. As if the National Student Survey is not enough, this looks to be a full parade of all the proxy horribles: DLHE (employment data), retention figures, number of firsts and 2.1s (goodbye academic standards and credibility of UK degrees) and something called learning gain. As I blogged previously, there is no consensus on what this is or how to measure it,  but in any case, gears will be grinding in anticipation throughout universities.

So last week I spoke to students about some of the pressures piling in on academics as management-by-metrics toxicity spreads throughout the sector:

  • Pressure to publish, and the fact that our peer-reviewed published research is subject to post hoc internal evaluation by non-experts in our field who assign it a grade 1-4. Unless they judge it as grade 3 or 4 (internationally excellent or world leading), you and your research are seen as inadequate.
  • High expectations of grant capture, with a very low prospect of success. We talked about SMART targets, and the fact that the A stands for attainable.
  • The implicit suggestion that you are only judged worthy if you bring in to the university an amount equal to, or greater than, your salary plus the ‘cost’ of your research. In effect, the status of an academic has slid from institutional asset to indentured servant. In universities sustainable has been untethered from its more usual environmental meaning, and is most often applied to issues of finance (Morrish and Sauntson 2013).
  • The National Student Survey which, in the context of a marketised and consumerist higher education sector, has threatened to turn the relationship between academic staff and students into an adversarial one.

I told them that in many universities, academics are accountable to a dashboard which records these Key Performance Indicators. Vice chancellors issue threats to ‘rank and yank’, i.e. demote or dismiss staff who, particularly, have not been able to secure research grant money. Nobody takes into account whether your research is expensive or not.

I told students that many of these targets are quite outside our control (NSS scores and grant capture). I told them we feel that we are players in some academic version of the Hunger Games where capricious gamesmakers change the rules all the time. Your contract lays out a set of duties, but you would be better off finding out what targets have been set for your Dean. If you are helping them win performance-related pay, you will be tolerated. If you prioritise serving the needs of your students, or scholarship, you make yourself very vulnerable.

I told them you could work 60 hours a week, never take a holiday or weekend off, have internationally regarded publications – lots of them, write textbooks, be a great teacher, and managers will still ask for more. And more.

I told them you are measured only by what you have not managed to achieve, not what you have achieved, never mind how valuable or prestigious.

I told them about the effects of long-term stress on the mind and body. I told them about the death of Stefan Grimm at Imperial University. And they were shocked and frightened that this could happen in a British university. I told them to look up President Alice Gast’s response  when she was asked a direct question about the preventability of Stefan’s death. I hope they read it. [Update: I understand Imperial College has taken some action over staff wellbeing in the intervening 12 months since this was originally posted.]

As I came back to my office there was an email from a Twitter follower, also an academic. We had corresponded but never met.

I’ve just been through a period of a few weeks marked by massive, almost unbearable stress and I’m on the other side of it feeling a bit like I can’t go on as I am in academia, without really knowing what that might mean.  The actual cause of pressure on me was marking, exacerbated by my also having a PhD thesis to read and viva in the same period, and some external examining.  I almost pulled an all-nighter right at the end, and resorted to staying in a hotel one night just to conserve energy for a 9:30am meeting the next day.  There are lessons I can learn from it all (like not putting a PhD viva in a marking period, not that that is likely to happen at all often) though I also think on occasions other of my colleagues have pulled the all-nighter just to get through the workload.  Twice in eight days I had to spend one day basically in bed, utterly exhausted.

Similar stories are shared around on Twitter and on blogs, and it is reassuring in some ways to know you are not the only one struggling to fulfil impossible obligations. Ros Gill (2009) has written about mounting and multiple pressures in academia leading to unmanageable feelings of guilt and anxiety. A scholar in the US recalls struggling to meet the research requirements for tenure.  Amidst anxiety about spending too much time teaching, and guilt at enjoying teaching, she “asked friends with quiet homes if I could visit them for writing weekends” (Albertson 2016). There is a chilling account from Anonymous Academics in The Guardian (2014)  who wrote of a hostile manager unmoved by a professor’s protests of overwork and stress. Some bloggers have suggested that the nature of academic demands play on the symptoms of certain mental illnesses like mania (Tenure She Wrote 2016), and addiction (Ruminations: Life After Academia 2012) but inevitably lead to depression and anxiety.  Others, like Doctor Outta Here,  and the colleague I blogged about some months ago simply decide academia is incompatible with any quality of life. They quit.

Mountz et al (2015) have appealed for feminists to work to a code of slow scholarship as an act of resistance. And Thomas Docherty,, a reliable voice of sanity, has asked for academics to just start saying no.

Maybe you’re thinking it was unprofessional of me to share the personal concerns of academics. My students are ahead of you on this one. They recognise that the personal is political, and that the effects of workplace stress are now having an impact on them. I felt they needed to know some of the context which might explain the deteriorating mental health of some of their lecturers and professors. As my email correspondent put it “How such things get communicated (well, and with care) to students is a real challenge.” I hope I got it right. It felt as if I did. This was not a monologue; students had questions and comments. Most of all they offered support; their responses were simply heartwarming in contrast to the totalising judgement of management by metrics. As I lost my ability to contain my sadness, my voice trembled and I became tearful. A young woman stepped forward and offered a hug. Later more students arrived at my office with coffee and cake, or just concern. Students I barely know out of class offered more humanity and understanding than the managers who are charged with a duty of care to prevent workplace stress. I was humbled and grateful. And so I found the comfort of strangers in unexpected places, and as I said to my Twitter contact, that day is one I won’t quickly recover from. It was, ironically, Universities Mental Health Day.



Gill, R. 2009. Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia in R. Flood & R. Gill (eds) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge.

Morrish, L. and Sauntson, H. (2013): ‘Business-facing motors for economic development’: an appraisal analysis of visions and values in the marketised UK university, Critical Discourse Studies, 10 1, 1-20.

The Justice League of Academia has lunch

Last Wednesday (late October 2016) I was privileged to meet up with four of my favourite tweeps and bloggers. Kate Bowles (@KateMfD) and her wonderful daughter Clementine (@clembowles) were visiting the UK from Australia, so Richard Hall (@hallymk1), @Plashingvole (PV) and I couldn’t possibly miss the opportunity to get together. All of them have been an enormous source of support, advice and incomprehending headshaking during my last few tormented months in academic employment. The latter three of us are all based in the Midlands, and since Kate and Clem seemed to be circumnavigating the UK en route to various relatives, they were persuaded to drop by Leicester for lunch at Delilah Fine Foods , conveniently located next door to the Richard III Visitors’ Centre.

It turned out I was the only one who had met each of the others (except Clem) – either in person or via Skype, and could be relied upon to pick each of them out of a line up, so we wouldn’t be  loitering around wondering if that was an academic fellow traveller or another vegan habituee of Delilah’s.

I can’t really convey how momentous it was to be in the company of all these fine people. Despite coming from different disciplinary backgrounds, we are united in our opposition to the corporate university, managerialism, academic capitalism, management by metrics – and united in our wish to support the humanities, academic freedom kindness and humanity in our universities. Our conversation was not entirely uplifting as we all had stories of brutality being visited on friends and colleagues in academia. We told stories of infringement of academic freedom  and of impossible targets  being levied on academics . We heard about the astonishing levels of casualization in Australian universities , and how that strategy is gaining momentum in the UK. We discussed government policies which seem to undermine both the resourcing and independence of universities in the UK and Australia. We talked about possibilities for resistance, and the importance of conveying to younger scholars that it doesn’t need to be like this. As Steven Jones et al. argue here  we need to seize the narrative, challenge the discourse, do some refusing and disrupting…..Perhaps we could be more active in our unions in order to focus their efforts more intently on the erosion of academic freedom and job security.

As I blogged last time, those counter-narratives are strengthening and solidifying in the form of manifestos. Here’s a link to the Copenhagen declaration. What they all have in common is a plea to reinstate humanity at the core of the university. There is a callousness and objectification in being measured, evaluated, appraised and performance managed in each class, journal article or syllabus. There is some kind of template being imposed on academic careers, and even academic opinions, outside of which it is impermissible to stray. Enough. This is not a plea for special treatment because, yes, Glyn Davies, MP, academics do live in the real world – even in an extreme and dysfunctional simulation of the corporate world. This is a plea to allow academics to survive in their jobs without epidemic levels of anxiety and work-related stress. Here I would have linked to the blog post I wrote last March, except my previous employer required me to take it down.

Despite the catalogue of academic aversions, it seems we share a collective belief in humanity and the possibility of a better future. And of course we are animated by our engagement with digital pedagogies, social media and critical university studies. PV, with his inexhaustible range of cultural references has appointed us as the Justice League of Academia. I confess I had to look this up because comic superheroes would never have made it through the parental firewall chez Morrish; nevertheless it is an appealing comparison. It certainly added to the allure for Clem of meeting some rather sedate middle-aged bien-pensants, although we may have fallen short on discernible super-powers. Clem, incidentally, is already accomplished at the practice of artful and articulate authoritarianism.

As we left the café, I hauled out my camera for a photo to memorialize the occasion. As we shuffled into position, a kindly passer-by stepped forward to offer to take the picture. ‘See’, said Kate triumphantly, ‘humanity is always there’. Indeed. Time to start believing again, and more importantly, making it part of our academic practice and our activism.

And so we dispersed to fight for liberty, justice and the academic way in our various projects. PV (who like any self-respecting superhero prefers the cloak of virtuous and virtual anonymity) set off for the second hand bookshops to slake his thirst for literature. Richard headed for a meeting. Kate and I queued in Boots for Lemsip to clear that fog-induced catarrh of an English October. The Justice League, but also my fantasy league of academic colleagues.

It wasn’t many days before we were all in touch again – called to attention by a blog piece from the excellent Paul Prinsloo @14prinsp   where he offers several different approaches to educational activism: of being ‘woke’ meaning switched on and critical, to passing round the messages via retweets and postings, or just quietly ‘hospicing’ – not looking away, but watching and witnessing with care and concern as a dying system progresses to its demise. This is “a letting go, a critical self-knowledge of your own locus of control, and things beyond your locus of control”.  And activism also means taking care of yourself, and “allowing the community to care for you, to shield you, to hide you, to allow others to speak on your behalf”. I read this and felt enormously grateful that colleagues of such commitment and integrity are in my corner. And I am in theirs.


Care in the virtual community

It was the recent article on the paying-members-only university common room that made me think about the importance of belonging to an academic community. This particular story drew our attention to the fact that some academics, primarily casualized staff and graduate students, might be excluded from these spaces.

It appears that in a number of universities, senior common rooms have been ‘re-purposed’ by the space-utilisation team. At best, there may be ‘breakout areas’ with a kettle and a microwave. This solution is greenwashed by the estates team who will have saved a few micro-joules of heating and lighting, while at the same time keeping the CCTV and swipe-card barriers going (right, The Plashing Vole?).  But, in the jargon of university managers, are these spaces ‘fit for purpose’?

For one thing, the breakout areas tend to be the provenance of just one faculty or school housed within a building. There is often no central social space, and few social occasions to draw faculty together. So it is far less likely that there’s going to be a happy coincidence like the one that brought together an Anglo Saxon scholar and a microbiologist . The former knew of potions and remedies contained in the ancient Leechbook and she wondered whether they would work today as antibacterial agents. The latter decided to give it a go, and as a result, we have one new weapon against MRSA.

If we ever needed a defence of humanities and sciences co-mingling in universities, this is the example. But more than that, it points to the necessity of nurturing the fortuitous cross-fertilisation of intellects which really drives innovative research. Universities should be less like factories, and more like hangouts where clever people can talk to each other and ignite ideas. For this to happen we need space and – buzzword of the moment – a sense of belonging. Every university needs common spaces, but also head spaces – in other words, free, unstructured time. If I may commit heresy in an age of workload dashboards and management by metrics, we need to build aimlessness into a university.

Instead what we are likely to get are multi-occupancy offices and hot-desking spaces. The Plashing Vole on Twitter has talked about the impossibility of doing any real academic work when there are 15 people in an office. As I am thinking this through, I realise I’m echoing many of the same points made by him in this excellent piece from April 2016.

And so more and more people stay home to work without interruption, or without surveillance. This is not a helpful way to create ‘belonging’. But even if real academic community has been dissolved, academics still form a rather distinctive community of practice – shared lore and values, social practices and a joint enterprise. University leaders say they want the former, while being less enchanted by the prospect of the latter. At the same time as they say they want to break down silos and cross disciplines, they neglect to cultivate the spaces where those connections can be forged. In what seems like a perverse project designed to deprofessionalize, casualize and atomize the academy, community has been hard to maintain. Universities keep us marching along, forming and reforming in response to multiple restructurings, reviews and revalidations. There is a reason the word ‘tradition’ is rarely uttered in UK universities, except in the most elite. We are all newly precarious and we are not supposed to look for permanence.

When the university becomes a forbidding space, we head to what Thomas Docherty has called the Clandestine University. In the five years since his 2011 piece, the virtual academy has emerged as the place where academics go looking for stimulating and receptive imagined communities. In a recent Skype call with Music for Deckchairs  we marvelled at having found each other – and all the other Twitterers and bloggers who sustain us with affirmation, retweets and feedback, and introduce us to new compadres. This is academe sans frontieres, in effect, the new common room where we can recover some of the elation of academic discussion with people we would love to have as colleagues. We can write something and know it will not be blighted with a grade of 1*-4*. The casualized academic or the early career researcher who finds research leave foreclosed without a prior 3* publication can receive encouragement for their writing. The retiree uninvited from the weekly seminars can still find like-minded seekers of knowledge. We can roam, daydream, offend and reoffend and learn from those experiences. But it is the conversations we have, as I am having now, picking up themes from those other bloggers I’m so delighted I ran into. Those stunning writers discovered so unexpectedly when bouncing around the Twittersphere. Like Emily. And I am so grateful for their care and generous words when the kind of joyless academia which is expressed in brutalist concrete, offers only:

Research evaluation frameworks, sabbaticals, promotion criteria, appraisals, funding applications, the class structures of academia, the tacit division of work between Genius and Menial: all conspire to encourage the division of the Achiever sheep from the Nurturing goats. [The Plashing Vole] http://plashingvole.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/paying-in-kindness.html

The Plashing Vole says he is thankful for his immediate colleagues, and so am I. I have been supported, nay indulged, by a wonderful group of friendly, brilliant and accomplished scholars. I hope I have reciprocated their kindness – maybe so, since one dear man called me The Mother of the House recently. But I also want to extend my heartfelt gratitude to everyone out there who has followed me, interacted in some way or just clicked on that weird red heart. You really keep me going. The Plashing Vole is right, together, we are so close to Utopia.



Grove, Jack. 2016. Members only staff room splits opinion. Times Higher. April 28th. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/members-only-staffroom-splits-opinion