How academics can improve their quality of life

At a time when stress and mental health issues are endemic within universities, Erin K. Wilson considers the small steps she is determined to take in order to be part of the solution

November 21, 2019
Source: Getty

Two years ago, I acknowledged that my academic work was seriously affecting my health. Indeed, I had to. I had no choice.

In 2012, I relocated from Australia to the Netherlands to take up a position as the founding director of a research centre. This role involved transitioning from politics and international relations to a Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies. I worked intensely for five years, researching, presenting at conferences and teaching; designing new educational and research programmes; organising seminars and workshops; taking on policy work with supra-national European institutions and foreign ministries. I spent my evenings, weekends and holidays writing grant applications, book chapters, journal articles; preparing course guides; editing books and journal issues. In 2017, I moved directly from this role to head of department. This, in hindsight, was a mistake.

The signs were there well before I eventually admitted it. For six months, I had not been sleeping. For over 12 months, I would wake in the middle of the night sweating, my heart pounding, hands shaking, teeth grinding, for no apparent reason. I became irritable, snapping at friends, colleagues and loved ones. I knew I was overreacting to inconsequential things yet was unable to stop myself. I couldn’t find joy or fulfilment in anything. Colleagues and friends were deeply worried about me but felt powerless to do anything.

In the end, the acknowledgement that I was not OK came in the middle of an impromptu, informal conversation with my dean. He came to speak to me about arranging additional administrative assistance for all heads of department. In order to organise it, he asked me for a list of tasks that the assistant would undertake. That short list, which would not have taken more than 10 minutes to put together, and would have resulted in additional support, was the proverbial last straw.

“It’s just one more thing I have to do,” I said, as I began to cry, uncontrollably, overwhelmed by the seemingly insurmountable expectations and demands of academic life.

I am privileged to be in a supportive workplace, and immediately received the assistance I needed to rest and recover from years of working myself into the ground. Many others are nowhere near so fortunate.

My story is in no way unique. I’ve encountered this never-ending work pressure in both Australia and the Netherlands. Colleagues in the US, the UK and elsewhere also recognise it. This culture is taking a severe toll on people’s physical and mental health, from students to established senior scholars. It is discouraging many of the brightest and most talented thinkers and researchers from pursuing academic careers.

That academia requires total commitment is in essence taken for granted. Examples from many different disciplines highlight the same stresses as contributors to this relentless work culture: 

  • Constant pressure to publish
  • Increasing instability and insecurity of academic positions. I spent the first seven years of my academic career on temporary contracts, after a protracted and traumatic PhD experience. Many colleagues have spent far longer in unstable employment
  • The demand that we be academic superheroes, able to do everything from teaching to marketing, despite little if any training in anything except research
  • The pressure put on families and relationships by one partner having to live in another city, country or continent in order to have meaningful and relatively stable work (frequently with consequences that more detrimentally affect women)
  • The constant grant application cycle, with deadlines at the end of vacation periods, meaning researchers use their holidays to write proposals, instead of taking an actual break.

These pressures are familiar to most academics, yet there is no doubt that they are systemic and there seems little prospect of relief any time soon.

In the Netherlands, following advice from the Commissie van Rijn, funding will be redirected to technical universities from general research universities, reducing staff capacity and undermining the quality of education. This funding reallocation takes place alongside planned 2020 budget cuts to the Dutch education sector of nearly €150 million (£130 million). At a cross-continental level, the new European Commission does not have a commissioner for research and education. These areas have been subsumed under the broader portfolio of “innovation and youth”. In the draft EU 2020 budget, more than €400 million have been cut from Horizon 2020, with the European Research Council alone losing almost €200 million from its annual budget. Meanwhile, back in my native Australia, the government announced that it would be cutting almost A$350 million (£188 million) over the next three years from university research funding.

Balancing performers

In this ever-widening climate of financial scarcity and job insecurity, it’s no wonder that early and mid-career researchers are working themselves to the bone just to have a fighting chance of staying in the game. Many scholars are giving up and walking away entirely – and that should worry us. Impoverishing research and education damages our societies and weakens our democracies.

Huge structural shifts are certainly required to address these broader constraints. At the same time, I wonder whether we are also somewhat complicit in these pressures. Academia is shrouded in prestige and mystique, more like a vocation than a career. Yet endowing it with an almost sacred quality contributes to sustaining unhealthy working cultures: if you aren’t prepared to devote your evenings, weekends and holidays to writing and research, then maybe you should reconsider whether you are cut out to be an academic. It is these cultural dynamics internal to academia that we have some power to change.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to navigate these pressures as I transition back into full-time work. It’s an issue that’s recently become more urgent, since I accepted the position of faculty vice-dean and director of teaching. One of my main priorities is to avoid reproducing the cultures and behaviours that made me ill in the first place. It’s not easy. These behaviours and cultures are deeply entrenched. Financial pressures on universities can make it impossible to implement change.

Sometimes, though, it is not about what is possible. It is about who we are, who we want to be, what we want our universities to be, holding fast to what we value, even (especially) when those values are under threat or entirely absent. I want to go home at the end of each day knowing that, regardless of the outcome, I have done what I can to create an environment where people feel secure, protected and valued. In my view, this can only enhance the quality of our research and our education.

I don’t pretend to have the answers for how to do this without broader systemic reforms as well. Nonetheless, I do have some steps that I am trying in places and spaces where I do have some control and influence: 

  1. Resist the 24/7 work culture. I try as far as possible not to work evenings or weekends. If for some reason I have to, I take time off during the week to compensate. I encourage my colleagues and students to do the same. Rest and relaxation are as important for good scholarship as time spent actually working.
  2. Promote and value diversity. I would like to see diversity sensitivity and implicit bias training introduced throughout my university, and indeed the sector as a whole. Yet even now, when hiring or promoting people, for example, we can make sure we consider the whole picture. What is their life outside work like? What caring responsibilities do they have? What circumstances, including discriminatory structures and practices, may have affected their ability to write, apply for grants, hold demanding leadership roles?
  3. Advocate for greater security and stability in employment contracts. A colleague of mine, who has been on short-term contracts for many years, was recently offered a permanent job. When the faculty concerned offered it to her, they honestly admitted that they had funding secured for only the first two and a half years, but they felt that offering her a permanent role was “the ethical thing to do”, and they would figure out how to make up the shortfall. They chose to do what was right for the person, not for the budget.
  4. Allow people to choose their own priorities in research, teaching and social engagement. As far as possible, don’t insist that people teach subjects they know nothing about or apply for grants before they’re ready. There are, of course, times when we all have to do things we don’t want to do. Yet such efforts and sacrifices should be acknowledged, honoured and compensated in some way, not just expected and taken for granted.
  5. Promote transparency and open communication. Decision-making in higher education can be opaque and exclusionary. While this is intended to shield staff from worries about broader political and economic trends, it can leave them feeling disempowered. Involving all staff in discussions about present and future challenges can generate energy, community and solidarity to work together to address them.
  6. Get involved with political actions to support academia and other social and political causes. Academia can feel like a solitary environment. Joining action groups, or even just wearing symbols of solidarity at work, can remind us that we are part of a global community of scholars committed to resisting unrealistic work pressure while upholding quality education and research. One such symbol is the red felt square, which first appeared as part of student demonstrations against tuition fee increases in Montreal and has since become a central component of protests against funding cuts, workforce casualisation, mounting workloads and commercialisation in Dutch academia.
  7. Build relationships and support networks with colleagues. I am lucky to have a wonderful group of supportive colleagues. We discuss ideas about research and teaching, share life struggles, talk about issues that really matter to us.
  8. Ask for help. I use these support networks when I am struggling, and support others when they are. We need to remove the taboos that prevent people from acknowledging that they are not OK, ask each other how we’re doing and get help when we need it.
  9. Take time to look after ourselves and our families. I try to exercise every day, have a healthy diet and get enough sleep. I try to spend regular quality time with my husband. I started singing lessons. We need to make time for the people and things we love and that give us joy.

These are small measures and not always easy to carry out. Yet they can make a real difference in themselves and lay the groundwork for the systemic changes we would like to see. It is, after all, in the small places and spaces that our work and our lives happen. That is where we have power for change and where, I believe, the most necessary and most revolutionary change can occur.

Erin K. Wilson is an associate professor of politics and religion at the University of Groningen’s Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies.


Print headline: Finding a balance

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Reader's comments (8)

I think you should add "say no more often" because it could be that taking on the role of faculty vice-dean and director of teaching is unwise in your circumstances. Unless the system is different to the UK, this will only lead to a lot of work and not promotion. One should know one's limits and the consequences of exceeding them. I speak from personal experience.
I really appreciated this article's honesty and think we should all reflect on our own silly work practices. Sadly this type of behaviour is endemic to many professions including school teaching, the law, banking etc etc.- and there isn't really a refuge, particularly if one doesn't have "transferable skills"
My main strategy is to maintain outside interests... even if they are a bit of a "busman's holiday". I work in Computer Science, and run 2 major websites, on my 2 hobbies, about which I also write extensively. Lunch breaks are spent writing reviews of role-playing games...
Think about how UCU might help to consider the health and wellbeing of academic staff. Consideration of pay and conditions involve working in a reasonable environment (i.e. without excessive amounts of stress or pressure) for a reasonable amount of time.
It is very difficult when the systems, including funders, work against the individual researcher. I am leaving academia as a senior fellow following 12 years of fixed term rolling research contracts in dementia focused research to run my own social enterprise. Why? I am not valued by potential funders who view cost effectiveness as employing junior fellows. Unable to take annual leave in the summer for many years I am seriously looking forward to moving on. I regard my doctorate as optional since there really are few opportunities for women in research in the UK who have families and caring responsibilities.
The pressure is not just on academics. As a senior technical manager I see my teams constantly pressured to support things that are way outside our areas of expertise. We have become the scapegoats for many of the things that academics no longer have the capacity to do. We are told, "technicians have to teach this now," but when we ask for some form of teacher training we're refused because "no money" and "techs aren't really teachers". When we fail to meet unrealistic expectations, we're accused of "sabotaging the student experience." We are literally being set up to fail. I've been in HE for 20 years and this is the worst I've seen it. I used to give my job a huge chunk of my spare time at nights and weekends, but it cost me my marriage and messed with my mental health. These days I'm out the door at 5 every night and I switch off work completely until the next working day. If my employer doesn't care about my well-being then it's up to me to manage those boundaries.
A brilliant series of insights and advice. Compulsory reading. I'm going to print this out and give to my colleagues.
It's interesting that this theme crops up, again and again, around the world - that there's something rotten in the State of Academia. Proposed solutions are generally of the "what personal measure one can take to mitigate the worst effects that ones university can have on oneself" - they are usually local solutions. But the underlying theme, that I can't quite get to grips with, is that universities apparently cannot operate effectively without derogating the dignity of individual staff members (academic and other). Why is that? what's going on? Is it simply that (elephant in the room) the business model of university education simply doesn't work? (or rather, it only works if there is an unending supply of cheap new labour, willing to 'go the extra mile', 'step up to the plate' etc in the hope that career opportunities will naturally come out of demonstrating gullibility). Or is it simply that academic 'bread and butter' is just not all that important in the corporate global portfolio? Or, quite simply, it could be that we don't actually hear from the people who might say "actually, my university treats me with dignity and compassion, respecting me for my contribution to academic discourse...", - we only hear the cries of pain from those at the unfortunate end of the spectrum. In any event, we still don't have an answer to why a significant proportion of universities treat their staff badly - is it carelessness, malevolence or desperation?