Blogconfidential: How to destroy another human being

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online. This week: How to destroy another human being

November 18, 2010

Our department head retired six months ago and has not been replaced, nor is there any sign of a replacement on the horizon. Until last week, one of the project leaders on our team was "acting up". She was a bright, dynamic and ambitious woman. Nevertheless, I could never understand how she managed to juggle the teaching, research and administrative commitments of her project leader role with the additional challenges of serving as acting departmental head.

Last week I had my answer: she couldn't. She was in her office for three hours before anyone noticed she was "unwell". After being taken to hospital and undergoing a full medical examination, she was diagnosed with a complete nervous breakdown. Apparently she simply could not handle the level of work being thrown at her and she collapsed under the strain. None of us really saw it coming, or expressed our concern (although we did occasionally gossip about her ambitions). We are feeling rather subdued.

For me, however, this is only the half of it. Because I am one of the most experienced academics in our department, I have now been asked to "fill in" and "help out". The organisation in general, and my department in particular, are totally dysfunctional. I need to get out, not take on more. If I say no, I feel it will be held against me. But if I accept, I could soon be following in my predecessor's footsteps towards the hospital ward.

Promotions are usually welcome, but in this case, you are right to be afraid. If you do accept the "temporary" assignment, you may be stuck with an unreasonably heavy workload for many months. Needless to say, there will be no extra money involved and probably very little acknowledgement.

It is a dilemma that many colleagues in academia will be facing as universities shed staff, or do not replace people who are retiring. Who is looking out for those left behind, who are asked to take on all these "redundant" jobs - as well as their own?

In an ideal world, organisations would be held accountable and reconnect with the legal concept of "duty of care". Human resources should establish clear guidelines to ensure that staff "stepping in" to fill vacant roles are not burdened with unrealistic workloads. With these kinds of firm assurances, standing in could be viable.

But if you are not convinced that your managers want to, or can, stop you burning out, you need to do a reality check. Is a job worth the sacrifice of your mental health? Can you really do two jobs, especially since your dynamic predecessor clearly could not? You may need to explain to your managers, diplomatically, that you have to turn down their request.

I wish I could say that this story is unusual, but I fear there are many academics who are suffering in similar situations, with even more to follow.

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