Discussion of the role of academics who have caring commitments focuses almost exclusively on parents, in particular mothers.
Talk to academics and university human resources departments, however, and a different picture of the academic carer emerges. Those who juggle caring responsibilities and their academic day jobs are often parents, but thousands more look after grandchildren, care for an elderly relation or assist a partner, relation or friend who is experiencing ill health.
But why is so little attention paid to this hidden army of carers working in our sector?
Caring responsibilities are often viewed as a personal matter, which is to be primarily addressed through private and individualised solutions. While this view is not specific to higher education, the flexibility of academic work often enables staff to work around their caring responsibilities, meaning that many may not feel the need to disclose them.
Staff may also be reluctant to declare their caring responsibilities in an environment where there is a view of an “ideal academic” who is fully available for their work and thus “care-free”.
Caring responsibilities are often changing, multiple and, overall, complex, which means that many staff do not report them.
My research, supported by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, has sought to capture the diversity of experiences faced by carers in academia. With Murray Robertson, from the University of Roehampton, I interviewed academic carers, who often had multiple caring responsibilities such as raising children while also supporting elderly parents.
A number of challenges emerged from the study, which is due to be published later this year.
The relative control that academics have over their working times and the ability to work from home can be beneficial in terms of work-life balance. However, flexibility can also be a “blessing with a curse” as it contributes to the blurring of work-home boundaries, prolongs the working day and ultimately leads to feelings that “you never switch off”, in the words of one participant. For carers who are already time-poor, this can result in burnout.
Indeed, many participants mentioned how their dual status and the demands of paid and care work affected their well-being. Many had experienced exhaustion and various illnesses, including anxiety and depression, with interviewees often linking poor health and low morale to their dual status.
It also had a negative impact on the careers of academic caregivers. Some participants considered going part time or quitting higher education altogether. Keeping up with research was identified as particularly challenging, while taking up visiting positions and attending seminars and conferences were seen as very difficult.
Carers often found that their research time was fragmented and disjointed. For those caring for a frail elderly relative or someone suffering ill health, the mental burden associated with preoccupying care matters hindered their ability to immerse themselves in their research.
Leadership and management activities were often viewed as being out of reach for those with significant caring responsibilities. Many felt that such positions were simply not compatible with being a carer. Those who had taken up these positions felt that the quality of their work-life balance had sharply declined as a result of high levels of stress. One participant described the responsibilities of care as being “glossed over” in senior management positions. As the majority of carers are women, this requirement to be a “care-free” academic is likely to be a key factor in the well-evidenced under-representation of women in senior leadership positions.
Universities tend to have provision that goes beyond statutory requirements, such as having flexible working policies and enhanced maternity and shared parental leave. However, many carers still don’t feel that their needs are met. Those caring for an elderly relation or someone with ill health often experience an acute sense of struggle. Doing this from a distance also contributes to high levels of guilt and frustration for those who cannot be physically present on a daily basis. Unsurprisingly, this is also the group who felt least supported by their institution. “The university’s protestations of being helpful to carers just haven’t happened,” explained one interviewee.
So what can be done? One important step is to ensure that carers gain visibility. Currently data on this group are very limited, whether in the form of statistics or research reports, with existing work focusing on parenting. More work is needed to raise the profile of academic carers.
Visibility must also bring recognition. Some of the participants we talked to were reluctant to ask for support for fear of being seen as lacking commitment or as being “lazy”. As a result, some preferred to agree informal arrangements with their colleagues, rather than make a formal request.
Care work must become normalised within academia. Every university should acknowledge and respond to the complex relationships of caregiving faced by their workforce.
Marie-Pierre Moreau is director of the Research in Inequalities, Societies and Education Research Centre at the University of Roehampton, London.