Aussies crushed by overwork

July 14, 2000

Australian academics are working long hours, facing large classes and suffering great stress, says a new report.

On average, they work almost 50 hours a week and 40 per cent spend more than 50 hours, University of Melbourne researcher Craig McInnis found in a study of more than 2,600 academics in 15 universities.

A report on the findings says that if the results are any guide, a limit has been reached to the time academics can reasonably be expected to spend on their work.

"We are perhaps at a critical point for the academic profession where the amount of hours worked and the diffusion and fragmentation of tasks seriously threatens the quality of research and teaching," Dr McInnis says.

Despite government cuts causing the loss of some 3,000 posts and bigger workloads, Dr McInnis reports that the level of commitment among academics remains high. Some 75 per cent said they were more motivated by intrinsic interest in their work than by material rewards, while 51 per cent said they subordinated most aspects of their lives for their work.

But 25 per cent were not satisfied with their jobs and the same proportion said they would not be academics again if they had the choice. The study found the general level of job satisfaction had fallen from 67 per cent in 1993 to 51 per cent last year.

Dr McInnis said there had been a "major decline" in a primary source of satisfaction for academics: the opportunity to pursue their own academic interests. That fell from 66 per cent in 1993 to 53 per cent six years later.

The negative outlook is not shared evenly across the system. A notably higher proportion of women are stressed and say they give up more of their lives to their work. But they are more likely to say their job satisfaction has improved since 1993, although they are also less likely to be satisfied with the opportunities to pursue their own academic interests.

Similarly, there are contrasts between the responses of younger academics compared with those at the midway mark or nearing the end of their careers. Late-career academics, for example, are by far the most negative, the report says, while mid-career academics "are distinguished by the fact that they are far more likely than the other two groups to be stressed and overworked".

"It is hardly surprising that academics, faced with a seriously low level of satisfaction with salary and related benefits - especially a loss in sense of job security - combined with a perception of less control over their work agenda, are increasingly negative in outlook," the report says.

"The possibility of trading off poor work conditions against the intrinsic rewards of academic work is much less of an option for an increasing number."

The survey found that while most academics profess an interest in teaching and research, a greater proportion now say they are more interested in research.

The fact that academics overwhelmingly believe the promotion system rewards research activity more than teaching effectiveness could account for this finding. The survey uncovered a major gap between what academics see as the reality and what they would prefer. In a list of the things that should be rewarded, they ranked teaching first. Yet in the rewards system, academics believe it rates fifth - well behind research activity.

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