Pressure too much? Use the door

March 18, 2005

Long hours and heavy academic workloads can be stressful. Add to this a personal tragedy and the cracks start to show. But, Chris Bunting finds, some employers exhibit a distinct lack of compassion for suffering staff.

Rosamund Allen feels she is being forced to "decide between post and husband". Allen, a reader in middle English literature at Queen Mary, University of London, admits that she is almost buckling under a combination of work pressure and a harrowing and exhausting effort to care for her mentally disabled husband, who was diagnosed with cancer just before Christmas.

The cancer diagnosis has come as a hammer blow in an already almost impossible situation. "It is an enormous addition to the raft of trips to clinic, doctor, nurse, hospital, physiotherapist, day centre, caring arrangements and community psychiatric nurse visits that have to be made."

But the everyday reality of caring for a mentally disabled 79-year-old had brought Allen to the point of complete exhaustion well before the diagnosis.J"Until you are in a caring situation such as this, you have no idea what it is like. I am caring for a person whose mind is unwinding and is regressing through the development it had gone through as a child. It is difficult to remain upbeat knowing that it is working down towards an end," she says. "For example, he came back from emergency respite yesterday, was sick in the coach that brought him back and I had to help clean it. He then came in cold and had to be warmed, reassured and fed. He got up in the night, locked himself out of his bedroom and curled up on the unmade spare bed where I found him at 4am. He had hidden the key in his nightshirt that he had ripped off, and when - I'm ashamed to say - I slapped his wrist while trying to find out where he'd put the key, he began sobbing," Allen says.

"He had to be comforted with tea, undressed and cleaned, put back to bed, read to and held until he fell asleep. He then had to be taken to the doctor's this morning for the monthly Zoladex injection against cancer. We were kept waiting over half an hour. I then took him to the day centre, where my message that they need not collect him today had not been passed on, so they had made panic phone calls to work and home in case he had fallen. After that I had to get to London, endure delays on trains and the Tube, order sandwiches for a committee meeting I was chairing and photocopy material I had not had time to do the day before because I needed to get back to meet my husband returning from respite.

"Yes, I'm stressed - not over that lot, but because, as a result of all that, I have overshot an Arts and Humanities Research Board extended deadline and have been given until the end of this month, from December, as a twice-extended deadline. And I know I will not make that either, and the School of English here is putting pressure on me because I have failed the AHRB and wasted the £1,500 that was expended getting me a postgraduate to help checkJmaterial for the project," Allen says.

She feels that the system is forcing her to choose between her personal and her work responsibilities, although she believes it is a decision she should not have to take. "If I can (just about) cope, why should I be pushed out? I am publishing, and have about eight things out or nearly out for the research assessment exercise.

"When I retire, I shall be glad to kick the dust of crumbling academia off my feet.J But I am not ready to go yet: I have a lot more to say, and I enjoy teaching. And my students seem reasonably happy. Why should money be allowed to interrupt the learning scenario in this stressful way?"

Allen says that if she misses the AHRB deadline, her work will be labelled "incomplete" orJ"unsatisfactory". Although, with only two years to go to retirement, she is not worried about the personal consequences of such a black mark, she is concerned that it will stigmatise her department and prevent others from getting funding. She believes managers in the department are also worried about this, and that it could explain an apparent lack of support from some members, although she is keen to emphasise that other colleagues have been supportive.

Morag Shiach, the head of Allen's department, said: "We have done everything we can to support Rosamund Allen, including dramatically reducing her teaching load, changing her working hours to fit around her caring duties, and exempting her from attending school meetings."

Whatever Allen's particular situation, there does seem to be a wider problem for academics trying to balance difficulties in their private lives with work demands.

When The Times Higher circulated a letter through the Association of University Teachers branch network seeking to contact academics with experience of trying to balance work stress and personal relationships, we were unprepared for the flood of responses. The cases differed widely. One academic, who did not want to be identified, described watching his wife - who worked in an academic position in the same institution - experience a nervous and physical breakdown because of work stress. She had, he said, been refused early retirement because she was "too important". She had then asked to work part time but was told this would take years to organise.

Eventually, at her wits' end, she handed in her notice.

"She had a full breakdown about a fortnight before serving out her time.

They just put more pressure on as the time neared. When the breakdown happened, it was a total collapse, accompanied by fits and seizures. We had to get her into a nursing home. I had lost her completely I All her department did was say that they were in no way responsible and demand a certificate for the days that she was taking off," he says.

The university would not give her sick pay because she was working out her notice. A year after her breakdown, the academic's wife is not in a fit mental state to give permission for her identity to be revealed in this article (hence the insistence on anonymity). Her husband does not believe she will ever work again, but the fact that she had handed in her notice at the height of her stress has left her with little legal redress. "The real irony is that I have had tremendous support within my department while caring for my wife. People have been bending over backwards to give me leave and home-work tools. It is quite extraordinary that two different units within the same university can have such completely different approaches," he says.

If there is a theme to be brought out of the experiences of the dozens of people who contacted The Times Higher , it is the inconsistency of responses from institutions when the balance between work and home life comes under stress. Allen observes that "stress is always qualified by real kindness in many places", and many interviewees had positive stories about colleagues going out of their way to help. On the other hand, they reported disastrous consequences caused by one or two unsympathetic senior colleagues.

Nick Parsons, senior lecturer in French at Cardiff University, has seen his marriage fall apart partly because of the strains imposed by his career, but he counts himself relatively lucky. "I am now separated from my wife and we are sharing custody of our child. My work caused a lot of the tensions. I used to be working until 10 or 11 o'clock at night all week.

We've been together in Cardiff for 14 years and, in that time, we went on three holidays together. I think it has got worse over the past few years, with the much-increased administrative loads and the massive focus on research," he says.

However, the contrast between his treatment by colleagues who make allowances for his childcare responsibilities and the experiences of friends in other parts of academe has left him feeling relatively well treated. "In many university departments there is a macho attitude: if you can't cope with the pressure at work and your family commitments, then give up the family. There is this ethic that you should give your whole body and soul to this job, 365 days a year."

This, says Gail Kinman, of Luton University, is the crux of the issue.

Kinman, who co-authored an AUT study of stress levels among academics, published in November, says there is a tendency in academia to see stress as a problem for the individual.

Managers, who are often under pressure themselves and are not always familiar with the workload of their subordinates, are expected to help individuals buckling under the pressure of workloads. But at a higher, policy-making level, little moral responsibility is being taken for the causes of stress: understaffing, increasing pressure to produce excellent research in appalling conditions, bigger teaching loads and significantly increased administrative responsibilities.

"The research evidence suggests that academics blame their high levels of stress primarily on the rapid deterioration they perceive in their working conditions," says Kinman. "Managing stress is not just the responsibility of the employee."

Allen sees her plight as directly connected to structural problems in higher education. "There is pressure at all levels. There is pressure to get students on to courses and get the courses taught by overstretched staff. There is pressure to meet the demands of the RAE and the AHRB.

"What it all comes down to in the end is money. It is the lack of resourcing that creates the stress for the people at the coalface who are trying to do their jobs without the picks, shovels or lanterns they need."

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