'I can't do it for 30 more years'

September 8, 2006

Three quarters of all academics worry about their work, The Times Higher has found. Tony Tysome reports

Nafsika Athanassoulis feels disillusioned about her fledgling career in higher education despite just landing a new job as an ethics lecturer at Keele University.

Last year she resigned from her lecturing post at Leeds University because the expectations of senior managers had left her feeling overworked, undervalued, stressed and frustrated.

Dr Athanassoulis is far from alone in her concerns about her job, according to the responses to a survey of university staff conducted by The Times Higher and the education research group, i-Graduate.

Nearly three quarters of the 1,200 staff who took part in the online survey on career plans and motivations said they worried about their work. The expectations of senior staff were mentioned by half of those as a source of their distress.

The survey shows that lecturers and tutors are suffering the greatest levels of anxiety, with 81 per cent saying they are worried about their jobs. Across all teaching staff, including professors, readers and chairs, more than twice as many respondents in each category identified pressure from senior managers as the cause of their worries, rather than the expectations of their immediate line manager.

Dr Athanassoulis said: "The university was putting us under pressure to make more money, but it wasn't putting anything back in the department. As a result, I was faced with unrealistic teaching and administration loads. I love teaching, but the amount of work I was doing made it impossible."

There are many academics looking for an opportunity to move to another post or take early retirement because they feel so "stressed out", she claimed.

"I have been in the profession for only six years, and I am already stressed. I cannot imagine spending another 30 years of this until my retirement. The disciplines and the students are great, and the research is enjoyable, but everything is warped by external influences," she said.

Moving to escape stress or a bullying manager is a common theme that emerges in The Times Higher survey. One respondent said the only reason he had stayed in his current job was because he had been "harassed so much that I am barely employable elsewhere".

Asked what factors made them want to move, comments such as "(to) get away from bullying manager", "a less aggressively managerial working environment", to be "treated like a professional, not hired help" and to "prevent headbanging against a brick wall" were typical. Top-down managerial and organisational cultures, heavy workloads and workplace bullying were frequently mentioned as causes of anxiety.

Dr Athanassoulis said that individual institutions and the sector as a whole were losing out by not giving academics enough time to think about how to improve their teaching and research.

She said: "I don't think we should be paid to do nothing, but if pressure to do more is taken too far you have to ask whether the output is worth it at the end of the day. Institutions should be prepared to take a risk that some people will think and never get anywhere, but along the way they may still be good teachers."


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