Broccoli and birdsong: the shifty discourse of ‘staff well-being’

When institutions put responsibility for wellness onto individuals, they also deflect their role in staff burnout and mental ill health, writes Madeleine Davies

Madeleine Davies's avatar
University of Reading
20 September 2021
Stalk of broccoli cut down, illustrating responsibility for staff well-being
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I am pretty confident that the most frequently “deleted unread” all-staff emails at the moment are those titled “Well-being”. For the past two years, across all sectors, including higher education, these messages have proliferated like the coronavirus itself. Advice includes reminders to eat broccoli, to exercise regularly and to listen to birdsong. The latest epistle I received delivered the shattering news that “not being physically active can increase our risk of developing heart or circulatory diseases and diabetes”. Who knew?  Such messages infantilise the workforce and deflect attention from the true causes of the “well-being” crisis.

In a May 2021 piece for THE Campus, Fiona Rawle discussed “wellness theatre” and situated well-being emails to staff and students within this domain. It’s a fascinating viewpoint (now I notice it everywhere), and I agree that many of the regular well-being messages emanate from a place of genuine care and empathy, but I read the resonance of this well-being discourse a little differently.

For me, the institutional interpretation of well-being links with recent political messaging where emphasis is placed on the individual’s culpability for personal and societal ills and simultaneously shifted away from institutional/corporate/governmental responsibility. Climate change, for example, becomes less a matter of Western industry belching out pollutants on a grand scale for the past 200 years than of our selfish desire for clean plates. If only we, as individuals, could restrain ourselves from rinsing our dishes before placing them in the dishwasher, we could all be saved. There is only so much that global polluters can be expected to do to make up for our wasteful personal habits.

We have seen the same drive within public health messaging, particularly in the run-up to the UK’s so-called Freedom Day. In this set of communications, it became up to us to decide how much personal risk we wanted to take. If we catch the virus, it is our recklessness that is to blame; there is only so much that the government can be expected to do to make up for our personal folly.

The HE well-being narrative chimes with this messaging. If staff could only take their self-care seriously, all the problems with burnout, stress-related sick leave and mental ill health would just disappear. The sector has thus taken it upon itself to adopt the position of wise nanny, reminding its staff in regular well-being emails of the basics of good health. If we do not heed the sensible advice, the implication seems to be, we only have ourselves to blame. There is only so much that the institution can be expected to do to make up for our neglect of our own well-being.

Except that none of these things are wholly matters of personal responsibility. Certainly, protecting my well-being is not completely in my hands. If my workload leaps from 45 hours a week to 68 hours, billowing over into evenings and weekends, if student and institutional expectations continue to accelerate, if staff continue to disappear and not be replaced, with the work spread among those of us who remain, and if admin, record-keeping, teaching hours, publication demands, tech-related learning curves, and “impact” and “outreach” pressures continue to proliferate, the opportunities available to me to protect my physical and mental health diminish.

Broccoli and birdsong will not help me sleep if my mind is juggling an epic “must do tomorrow” list, worrying about squeezing multiple tasks, teaching and writing into each day, and fretting about losing my job. Most of us could improve our lifestyle habits, but this can only go so far if the working domain continues to impose overload and to pile anxiety upon anxiety and pressure upon pressure.

The institutions and corporations would claim that they are subject to mounting “customer” and governmental pressure and that there is little they can do about the rising tide of expectations and the need to cut their costs; the well-being narrative is all they have at their disposal to address the ensuing problems with staff burnout.

There may well be something in this, but there is more that they can do to support us. For a start, there needs to be a meaningful analysis of bureaucratic overload, with unnecessary and/or duplicating admin tasks (which should not be the domain of academic staff, anyway) being removed or at least streamlined. For every new task, requirement or expectation that is added, one of equal size needs to be removed so that the year-on-year incremental increase in workload is stopped in its tracks.

Colleagues in all institutions would add to this a range of other measures that would be of genuine help to their well-being; these measures may include slowing the pace of change to internal tech systems and procedures, a new drive to make it clear to students that staff are not on call 24/7 and are not employed to be their parents, counsellors, bespoke careers consultants or programme administrators, and an amnesty on all new “initiatives” (often abandoned after a year or two) that generate workload pile-up.

If we allow the well-being narrative to persuade us that our physical and mental health lies solely in our own hands, we will stop pressurising institutions to produce solutions capable of actually helping us. To HE leaders I would say: abandon the broccoli and birdsong emails and work with your front-line staff to produce the action we so desperately need.

Madeleine Davies is associate professor of women’s writing at the University of Reading. The views expressed in this article are her own.

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