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:
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.