Proper self-care is impossible in the modern academic environment

I realised that I was sacrificing my best years – and those of my child – for a dream that did not have my back. So I quit, says Helen Lees

April 19, 2024
An academic closes his eyes at his desk, symbolising self-care
Source: iStock/Liubomyr Vorona

When I went into therapy, I never imagined that it would lead me to quit academia.

Therapy is often considered appropriate only for those with serious problems, but I didn’t see myself as being in that category. I was not secretly depressed or dysfunctional, let alone suicidal. I presented as a confident, articulate, capable academic individual with passion and vigour for my research area. I’d been promoted twice in two years and was appearing on radio and TV. An excellent networker, I was also pulling people and projects together in the hope of funding.

I had just adopted a little boy, too. And anyone who knows anything about the adoption process, or about handling a toddler who has been through the care system, knows that you need to be robust.

But the therapy was still enormously useful to me. For a start, it helped me parent therapeutically, as my son needed. Moreover, it allowed me to focus on my inner world – something I had never had the opportunity to do amid the rush and stress of doctoral study or the subsequent career track that I had taken so seriously.

Yet while therapy was initially a personal project, it soon highlighted certain anomalies in my understanding of the university. I realised that academia wasn’t a place of well-being. I realised that my work didn’t offer any space or time to attend to myself. I realised that I was sacrificing my best years – and those of my child – for a dream that did not have my back.

In other words, I came to understand that I lacked self-care and that the university could not care for me. So, in 2018, in my early forties, I left my full-time post as an associate professor of social sciences at a UK university and headed off to Tuscany.

This project of establishing a new life and way of being is going well, but I have had to work as hard at it as I ever worked writing papers or teaching students. I conclude that the level of personally relevant and researched well-being that I now enjoy is not possible for busy academics.

The lack of care in universities has been further highlighted to me by my recent work as editor of a therapy magazine. Being in a therapy environment has made it very clear that therapy is becoming more popular, well beyond its previous audience. Covid probably broke the bubble of silence and stigma.

But universities have not understood this change in the zeitgeist. The climate science that they churn out underlines again and again the necessity of moving towards sustainable living from an environmental perspective. Yet as a researcher of the symbolic violences enacted by education, it is equally clear to me from the data that educational environments are not conducive to living in a sustainable inner world – one characterised by work-life balance, attention to emotional responses and experiences and open dialogue about mental health.

That isn’t entirely universities’ fault. An awareness of how much it matters for physical and mental health that people perform regular and committed self-care is only now rising in our collective consciousness. Previously, we thought we could and should just get on with it, as I used to try to do. There is developing evidence that unhealed trauma is linked to physical ill health and that physical wellness is supported by psychological healing, but universities have still not learned such language, so different from that of standards, scores and position.

Changing the competitive atmosphere of the university into a caring one will be a long road. For now, I would say it’s not a good idea to try self-care in the context of an academic career. And I say this as someone who knows that the periods of sadness attendant to inner excavation need silence, calm, alone time, patience and attunement; none of those things help you succeed in an environment that urges you constantly to speak, write and enthuse about your work.

As an academic, I researched the value of chosen, beneficial silence in educational environments. Some of this work focused on university spaces, including integrating things like silent walks around campus with students in my education seminars or introducing the silent pause into teaching and learning. This was to show how we learn better when we are experiencing silence with consent: an enhanced state of personal calm and openness to others.

I was also steeped, in my reading and professional encounters at conferences and elsewhere, in the value of consent-based protocols and the inherent practical democracy of alternative education. These research areas introduced me to worlds I valued deeply yet could not find in university life. Well, now I live in those worlds. But, to do so, I had to leave academia.

Helen E. Lees is author of Playing the University Game (Bloomsbury, 2022).

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Reader's comments (2)

I am not defending university life but I do not know where this author has been all their life not to realise what it is like. I remember talking to colleagues in the 1990s where we agreed that academic life will destroy at least one of relationships, family and hobbies (unless it is the career that suffers). It is not for many people and I would not now advise most of my students to embark on an academic career. It still offers some freedom but has got worse in my many years as an academic.
Higher education institutions must urgently implement systemic adjustments to prioritise work-life balance in a highly social, interactive, and demanding work environment, provide robust mental health support systems for academic staff members, and allow them greater autonomy to direct their own workloads and schedules. Currently, work-life balancing does not receive enough attention in higher education.