Strain spotting

June 26, 1998

Surveys paint a bleak picture of stressed academics, baggy-eyed from long hours and mountains of paperwork. The latest shows that 40 per cent of academics put in more than 48 hours a week. Kate Worsley asks four university workers, from a principal to a technician, how hard they work and why. Left, an academic who quit.

In Chinese water torture it is the relentless drip, drip, drip that drives you insane. In academia, longer hours, more students and endless cuts have been rubbing nerve endings raw for years now. Anonymous surveys, staffroom gossip - all confirm a sense of growing pressure. So why so few open complaints? Are academics all numb from overwork or have they been struck dumb by other pressures?

We asked four people, from a vice-chancellor to a technician, for a snapshot of their working week. The bare facts (see below and right) speak for themselves: regular evening and weekend work, increased duties, constant financial trimming. A 50-hour week seems typical for most. But only one person would admit on the record to feeling more than simply "challenged" by their workload. Why were they not all screaming for relief?

Well, on the positive side, conditions in academia still have the edge on other sectors. Ex-salesman turned business school academic John Saunders is glad to be shot of weeks in hotels and crucifying sales targets. "I'm not overworked compared with many of the people I know in business," he says.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational management at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, agrees. "Even though their autonomy is decreasing, academics still feel that they get certain pay-offs for the hours they put in."

And academics themselves must shoulder some blame for long hours. The driven genius still lingers as an ideal. Whether real or feigned, obsessive enthusiasm for work impedes attempts to limit hours. "When I'm not tending to a screaming child, I'm thinking about work," admits Cambridge researcher Matthew Freeman. "Many academics, particularly lecturers, are very achievement orientated, so they don't say no. They like to feel important, they like to be asked, and they take a lot on individually."

As in the private sector, "the people at the top feel they cannot convey any kind of weakness. If you are very ambitious then you work long hours." Academics' claims to enjoy their work, whether couched in management speak or not, are probably genuine, thinks Cooper.

But while more corporate-minded individuals are colonising universities, it is those untrained or temperamentally unsuited for a heavily bureaucratic, market-driven environment who feel most strain. "Most of my job is administration," complains one art college lecturer. "It is a waste of my expertise."

"Twenty years ago if academics were overworked it was mainly because of what they generated themselves," observes Cooper. "Now there are so many demands that that element of forced overload has got to them." And whether you choose to work long hours or have them imposed on you makes a big difference to perceived stress.

But what should be remembered - especially by those who claim to love their jobs - is that consistently long hours, whether enjoyed or not, have been repeatedly shown to eventually damage your health, productivity and family life. "Just because you like it doesn't mean to say that it's not damaging you. The evidence is mounting that consistently long hours, not the odd 50 to 60-hour week, mean ill-health. But more studies need to be done on the effect of work that you choose to do," says Cooper.

No one with any self-respect likes to be seen as a victim. The unwillingness of staff to speak up about stress frustrates the efforts of organisations such as the Association of University Teachers to help. The AUT went back to the local branch that had initiated its recent stress survey to find only one person prepared to come clean about stress in public.

"If you are working all the hours God sends but at the same time you are making it, that's OK," explains press officer Monica Hicks. "As soon as you begin to put it down as a complaint it means you can't hack it and are basically a loser in departmental terms. I think it's an appalling indictment of the industry."

Many people treasure academia's flexibility and autonomy, making it hard to accept a ceiling on hours. The AUT proposes instead a transparent process of fair allocation of work to weed out the freeloader and ease pressure on the high achiever.

"Academics have to learn better time management, prioritising their work, making sure they have something of an outside life; management has to understand that developing a long hours culture in the end won't get efficiency out of people," says Cary Cooper. "For instance, I have a work do tonight from 6.30 to 10pm so I've come home this afternoon to spend some time with my family before I go out."

Technician Instructor

Total hours worked in a sample week: 48

Ron Jackson

46, technician instructor, industrial design department, Runnymede campus, Brunel University, Middlesex.

Duties: Runs wood and metal stores, prepares and sells materials to students to use in models ranging from washing machines to a beer dispenser. Also teaches workshop basics to first-years two days a week.

Official hours: 8.30am-5pm. Thirty days holiday out of term time.

Sample week: "In the stores all week. I turn the power on, put the money in the till, and wait for students. It's a bit like going to Tesco, there can be no one there and suddenly there's a huge queue. We technicians have our own little tearoom for lunch or I go home.

"The fourth-years spend all night in their rooms sanding and polishing this time of year, so if I don't stay late to help them they often can't finish their projects."

Biggest headache: Students. "They could leave me a cutting list and pick it up the next day. But they will leave it until the last minute. Typical youngsters, I suppose."

Pressure points: "When I started (as wood store keeper) the job was ridiculously easy, but in the past few years it has really changed.

"Now I look after the metal store and the teaching as well, so the stores are shut two days a week when I teach. But the students still come for help so I end up doing it lunchtime to get them out of trouble. Especially the girls. Fluttering of eyelids works wonders. I'm too easy I suppose."

Back-up: None. "If someone was sick for a week we'd have to shut the department down."

Lifesavers: Being able to pass on 20 years' experience to students.

"They're so relieved when I can help them out when they've been struggling with a hand-saw for the past hour."


Total hours worked in a sample week: 50-55 Matthew Freeman

37, biology researcher, Medical Research Council, Cambridge, "one of the most luxurious positions you could have".

Duties: Supervises five biology researchers working on cell division in fruit flies in hope that better understanding will lead to breakthrough in cancer treatment.

Official hours: 35 a week.

Sample week: Take two children to school; 9am-11am "deal with all the boring garbage on my desk". Two-thirds of time is spent working on experiments at bench; also supervise team, review papers and grants, give seminars, attend meetings and so on.

Leave just after 6pm to pick up kids. Back to lab for a few hours once or twice a week. In most weekends, too. "You spend your life collecting virgin fruit flies, and they stay that way for about eight hours. They're a promiscuous lot."

Biggest headache: (laughs) "Being staff here you don't have to teach, or write grant applications, the two banes of people's lives. It's fantastic."

Pressure points: "It's a high-pressure job, there are 20,000-40,000 people working on fruit flies globally and we only have a small team. We can't afford mistakes."

Back-up: Flexible working. "When a child is ill I can frequently take a day off at short notice, which my wife, who is a GP, cannot."

Lifesavers: "I find the job completely absorbing."

Wish list: More funding for British science: "Basic research is the underpinning of a high-tech, high-skill economy." Principal

Total hours worked in a sample week: 60-plus C. Duncan Rice

56, principal and vice-chancellor at Aberdeen University for two years.

Duties: "To be a leader and opinion former. To ensure that Aberdeen serves the community well while trying to push us as far as possible towards international excellence."

Hours: 8am-7pm, plus two evening functions and overnight trips every fortnight or so. Often weekends too. Always on call. About three weeks annual leave.

Sample week: "A third of my time is spent on fundraising activities and cultivation of those who can bring us money or lead us to it." The rest: meetings, hosting functions and speaking engagements. "On days with no evening engagements, which are few, I read, write, and prepare at home." Shares care of his three children (aged between six and 19) with his wife, a banker, who is often away.

Pressure points: "I expect to spend even more time on fundraising in the future."

Back-up: Personal assistant and "special assistant" to brief him and deal with speeches and journalists - "few meetings are not prepared for". Two nannies and a housekeeper.

Lifesavers: "I am particularly proud of my recent appointment to the council of the National Trust of Scotland."

Wish list: "There are not enough hours in the day to do everything I would like. My wife and I try to see as much opera as our schedules allow."

Head of department

Total hours worked in a sample week: 60-plus John Saunders

51, head of business school, Aston University, for one year. "If it was any more fun they'd make it illegal!" Ex-British Aerospace salesman.

Duties: Academic and financial responsibility for 130-140 staff and 1,600 students. Two research days a week.

Sample week: Monday. Clear email. At 9am introduce a seminar. 12am, lunch with man from funding council. At 3pm sit in on funding council presentations. Deal with in-tray until 6.30pm. Watch videos of new TV advertisements till 1am. "I must have watched that new Clio ad 400 times. But I didn't know who Bob was. I thought he was a bad-looking Dustin Hoffman."

Tuesday. Research day. Cancelled for budget meeting, financial planning lunch, three interview sessions and a session editing videos for inaugural lecture.

Wednesday. 10am meet doctoral student. "12-2pm? It's a blank." 2-5pm, senate. "It was quite exhilarating, big politically sensitive things going through." Send off research paper.

Thursday. Research at home on corporate identity and branding, end up working on financial plan.

Friday. Check videos again. Professorial search committee. 12.30-6pm monthly senior management group meeting "to ruminate on long-term issues". "Then I chase every one out so I can go pick up my little boy from weekly boarding school at 7pm and go to the pub."

Sunday. Prepare for inaugural lecture.

Biggest headache: Informing failed job applicants. "It's like selling a product and then not giving it to them."

Pressure points: None "I'm not overworked compared with many of the people I know in business. In academia you're not a jobsworth and there's nowhere near the uncertainty or pressure. Very rarely do universities face the cuts businesses doI I'm going to get shot for that, aren't I?" Back-up: Shares personal assistant. "I have a terrific team, they protect me from most unpleasantness."

Lifesavers: "The vice-chancellor recently reduced the number of committees from 122 to 26."

Wish list: More time. "Walking around and seeing people gets crowded out."

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