Lecturer’s suicide a ‘wake-up call’ on overworking in academia

Researchers criticise focus on aftercare for stressed staff members and urge leaders to tackle workload pressures head-on

June 14, 2018
Cardiff Business School
Source: Cardiff University

The suicide of a university lecturer who said that he had struggled with his heavy workload should act as a “wake-up call” for the sector, academics have urged.

Malcolm Anderson, an accounting lecturer, took his own life at Cardiff University in February after being asked to mark 418 exam papers in a 20-day period.

A note left by Dr Anderson in his office referred to his unmanageable workload and a colleague said that, while Dr Anderson had “complained to management a number of times” about his workload, he “received the same response year after year”.

In the wake of the verdict, Cardiff said that it would undertake a review of the support services available to staff.

The university has since confirmed that a one-to-one staff counselling service had been cut from campus facilities in 2015, and was replaced by an external 24-hour telephone service. “Ultimately, we no longer have a qualified professional to talk to face to face,” one staff member told Times Higher Education.

A university spokesman said that this change “was not motivated by cost” and that the university took staff well-being “very seriously”. But academics from across the sector have said that addressing mental health issues is only part of the solution and that university leaders must take greater responsibility for tackling workload pressures head-on.

Grace Krause, a research student in Cardiff’s School of Social Sciences, argued that the university’s promise to “consider what further action is appropriate…in order to ensure the future well-being of our staff and students” was “not only wholly inadequate” but also “dangerously misguided”.

“While good mental health resources are important, the discussion we need to have cannot only be about mental health,” she said. “No amount of counselling will make you resilient enough to be able to mark 418 exams in 20 days without experiencing immense suffering.”

Ms Krause highlighted that, less than 48 hours after news reports on the inquest into Dr Anderson’s death appeared, Cardiff had sent out emails informing staff members that their allocated workload for the next academic year was available for viewing, at 5.30pm on 8 June. “They received a reminder on Saturday morning [9 June] at 7am,” Ms Krause said. “If Cardiff University is really committed to increasing staff well-being it will have to do better than this.”

Dr Anderson’s case has drawn uncomfortable comparisons with the case of Stefan Grimm, a toxicologist who took his own life in September 2014 after being told that he was “struggling to fulfil the metrics” of a professorial post at Imperial College London. This led Imperial to review its use of performance metrics.

Jessica Gagnon, a senior research fellow at the University of Portsmouth, said that Dr Anderson’s death should act as a similar “wake-up call for the entire education sector”.

“Workloads have become unbearable,” she said. “Universities need to take seriously the mental health and well-being of staff and students.”

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Tragic suicide ‘a wake up call’

Reader's comments (1)

Macho-Management don't care about academic staff. Simple as that. They don't even bother trying to hidden the contempt for academics. Nothing will change. They'll be reminders about facilities or websites available to staff suffering from stress, etc, and 'well-being workshops' or 'time-management seminars', but the underlying causes - excessive workloads, lack of adequate resources, too many impossible and conflicting Key Performance Indicators, constantly being made to feel that we're failures because we are routinely told that we need to do more, be more ambitious, raise our game, etc., none of that will change. As always with university management, the problems will be pathologised and attributed to individuals being unable to cope, rather than the institution being dysfunctional.

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