Leader: Reiki riles while Rome burns

The wellbeing of individuals matters, but what matters more is the wellbeing of a sector facing swingeing cuts

January 21, 2010

Happiness is the new despair. Ever since Richard Layard, emeritus professor of economics at the London School of Economics and the Government's happiness czar, published Happiness: Lessons from a New Science in 2005, a ripple of "joyousness" has spread throughout the land. There's been talk of happiness lessons for schoolchildren, therapy for the victims of the recession - the idea being that "negative thinking" and depression could render those made redundant permanently unemployable - and in December, the Department of Health gave us New Horizons: A Shared Vision for Mental Health, a document that set out a "programme of action to help improve everyone's mental wellbeing".

Meanwhile, as our cover story reports, encouraged by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, universities have been busy setting up wellbeing services aimed at boosting employees' mental health, reducing absenteeism and creating "a positive working environment". For once, the academy and the Government are united: mental and emotional health is good for employees, employers and the economy.

At the same time, many academics, and particularly the University and College Union, are complaining about a lack of job security, a reduction in control over many aspects of their lives and a growing work-life imbalance. For managers, academics and administrators, jobs are far more complex and pressurised. University nurseries and creches are closing and academics are increasingly expected to work in open-plan offices - no trivial matter when your life is spent doing intensive research.

Is the wellbeing agenda an attempt to disguise these facts or compensate for them? As higher education cuts start to bite, it will be interesting to see whether more time and money is devoted to these initiatives or less. Some people, such as John Storey, professor of human resource management at The Open University, believe they "could be interpreted as mere sticking plasters in the face of a wider deterioration in employment conditions".

As universities are forced to restructure and the system is "brought to its knees", as the Russell Group claimed last week, an Elastoplast won't be big enough to cover those sorts of cuts. What then? Anger management classes?

The wellbeing of individuals is important, but it is like tending the flowerbeds while your house is burning down. What is far more important is the wellbeing of the sector - of all of it, not just that of the 20 increasingly self-important Russell Group institutions (which shouldn't forget that although the last research assessment exercise highlighted some pockets of excellence, it also revealed quite a few pockets of embarrassment). If the Government keeps cutting, is it really wise for some quarters of the academy to scream hysterically in the national press while giving staff reiki and counselling to cope with the pain?

Complaining isn't the answer, and using language such as "gold standard" and "jewel in the crown" is elitist nonsense that means nothing to a public more concerned with down-to-earth issues such as MRSA in hospitals and paedophiles in nurseries.

What would be good for everyone's wellbeing would be to hear less from universities on what is being done to them and more on what they are planning to do about it.


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