24/7 demand leaves staff besieged

March 23, 2007

Stress levels mount as demands on academics soar, writes Tony Tysome.

Andrew Devlin has reached the end of his tether. So maddening is the constant barrage of inquiries, requests and demands from his colleagues and students, he has decided to exploit a trip for a conference in the US to "take a breather" and ignore all his e-mails for a week.

"I will not be consulting e-mails during my absence. It's the only way I can avoid going mad."

Dr Devlin, a senior lecturer at a major university in the Midlands, epitomises the sense of frustration felt by a growing number of academics over what they see as an emerging 24/7 working environment in higher education, where managers and students expect them to be constantly "on call".

It seems that a generation of academics is being driven to distraction by more students, a performance culture fostered by financial constraints, the rise of the fee-paying "customer" and the revolution in communications technology. The autonomy and self-direction so long enjoyed and jealously guarded by scholars is facing extinction.

Dr Devlin, whose name has been changed because he fears management reprisals for his small act of rebellion, said: "There are many ways that e-mail has begun to eat away at our time and add to our pressures.

"Yesterday, a postgraduate student seemed to think it was acceptable to e-mail me a piece of work at 7pm which was to be discussed the next day."

The rising pressures on the sector appear to be leading some managers to cross the line between academics' working and personal lives, and the traditional boundaries between times when staff are available for duties related to teaching and administration, and time set aside for research and scholarly activity.

Academics now find themselves being called or messaged when they are in the library, the laboratory, at home, in the evening, at weekends - and even when they are on holiday or off sick.

Sue Blackwell, a University and College Union representative at Birmingham University, said: "The university's management increasingly encroaches on people's lives. I am dealing with cases of academics who have been contacted while they are on sick leave. People feel their private lives are being invaded."

Staff in Sheffield Hallam University's health and wellbeing faculty have been asked to provide managers with their mobile and home phone numbers and are required to attend weekly "keep in touch" meetings to report what they have been doing and what they intend to do next week.

One academic in the faculty commented: "There is increasing use of IT and mobile phones by managers to keep track of where you are and what you are doing. Originally, academics worked autonomously and efficiently, but now we have managers who are younger than us breathing down our necks.

"The ironic thing is that we are a centre of excellence in teaching and learning for student autonomous learning. Students are encouraged to be autonomous learners, but we are not encouraged to be autonomous employees."

Alan Daintz, head of employee relations at Sheffield Hallam, said it was not policy to require staff to be available out of hours. The university was committed to promoting a good work-life balance, he added.

A growing number of academics have tried to turn IT to their advantage and spend part of their week working from home to escape interruptions from managers and students. In some institutions, however, managers have reacted against this by demanding that they be on campus from 9 to 5.

A lecturer at Liverpool Hope University said: "When I first joined the university, my head of school told me that I was not expected to be available 24/7I but two years ago we were told that a 9-to-5 rule applies."

Another academic pointed out how part-time lecturers at the Open University are required to be available outside normal working hours, as well as during the working day.

Being on call and therefore open to interruptions from managers or students at any time is a major cause of stress among academics, suggests evidence gathered by the University and College Union.

Gail Kinman, a reader in occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, has analysed the results of two surveys conducted by the UCU. She said interruptions were one of the highest stressors identified in the study. The surveys found that nearly a fifth of academics felt that they could never work without interruptions, while nearly half said they could rarely do so.

She said: "There is an increasing expectation that you will be available any time, anywhere."

Nevertheless, she suggested that academics are often their own worst enemies, particularly when it comes to responding to e-mails.

"Because the technology is there and you have remote access to your e-mails, you feel the need to use it. Then it can become a 24-hour thing where you are responding to e-mails late at night or at weekends. The problem then is that academics can create expectations among managers and students that they are happy to be on call at any time," she said.

Gilly Salmon, professor of e-learning at Leicester University, said: "When I worked at the OU about two years ago, there was always a huge fuss about academics not being in their offices.

"The university even had managers going around counting academics who were in their office. There was a presence culture there that seemed inappropriate. But I think if academics do respond promptly to e-mails and show they can work from home or remotely in a responsible way then managers should be less worried."

But Will Swann, director of students at the OU, said managers were happy for academics to work flexibly as long as they got their work done.

He said: "We do not require staff to keep their mobile phones switched on, and managers should not need to know where staff are every minute of the day. We do not employ people to control them but to enable them to be productive."

Barry Winn, a pro vice-chancellor at Hull University, said academics and managers needed to learn to ignore messages and to not expect responses outside working hours.

"We live in an era where communication is easy, and we have to relearn the ground rules so as not to overstep the mark. There has to be a professional relationship and discussion with staff so that we can support their needs and make them feel comfortable in the working environment."

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