Blog confidential: Clearing the absent mind from overload

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online. This week: Clearing the absent mind from overload

August 12, 2010

I am writing with what may seem like a lesser problem than those documented over the past few weeks, but it's still a concern to me. I need advice on how to deal with a situation that has left me frustrated and upset.

I work in a social sciences department with 12 other academics. Well, I say there are 12, but that is just the problem. We have one person off on long-term sick leave and two others who are absent - one struck down with stress and the other with undisclosed "personal problems". The rest of us have been told that we must cover for them. The environment here is unsupportive and individualistic - that's right, a social sciences department with the mantra "me, me, me". One of our absent staff members usually does clearing, and I have been told that I have to cover for him. The problem is that I have just booked a holiday.

I am the least liked by our academic head, primarily because he sees me as some sort of strident feminist who needs constant surveillance. He makes little jibes - "Oh, we are on form today" - and the other day he called me "Germaine". He is constantly riling me when there is no one else there to witness his behaviour, but I never take the bait; I just note things down.

Because I have been so busy covering for our absent staff, I forgot to put in my request for annual leave. When our leader sent an email directing me to cover clearing this year, yes, you guessed it, I had already booked my holiday during that time - two weeks in France, all paid up. Our union rep is on holiday, and I'm afraid I will have say goodbye to £1,400 for a cottage in France. Is there anything I can do?

I think honesty is the best policy. Take your concerns to your academic head, with evidence that you have paid for your holiday. Most people have some humanity you can appeal to. Explain your situation and apologise for your mistake.

Ask for support. If he is unwilling to help, seek some sort of compromise, and perhaps offer additional help with the workload next term. If this does not help, go to your head of department (after explaining in the nicest possible way your reason for doing so). These issues can be particularly difficult when you need help from an academic head who could be acting in an inappropriately "managerial" way simply because it is you making the request.

You should also get guidance and support from your union. Your local rep is not available, but there must be someone filling in - surely they have a rota of sorts. If that fails, contact the regional representative. You pay your subscriptions for such occasions, and they should take charge of the situation. I must emphasise that you should elaborate on your circumstances to everyone you talk to - that covering for absent staff has led you here.

Do let me know the outcome. I know you worry that in comparison to the subjects of several recent blogs, your problem looks trivial, but it sounds like you have worked hard over the past year and you deserve a break. And the university should bear its duty of care to you in mind.

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