Adequate is enough – and some days we won’t manage even that

University managers must accept that business as usual is not an option for many university staff, says Petra Boynton

April 16, 2020
Source: Getty montage

“All staff must be logged in by 8am to indicate readiness to work.”

“I know you’re off sick, but can you work from the sofa?”

“This online syllabus for next term needs to be completed in a fortnight.”

“Let’s finish our outstanding papers during this free time!”

“Daily activity reports must be filed by 7pm each day.”

These are a few examples of requests made of academic staff since the Covid-19 pandemic forced the shuttering of UK university campuses. A key point many universities appear to be missing is that this is not “business as usual”. Our lives have been rendered entirely unusual, and expectations should be adjusted accordingly.

We’re facing long-term social disruption, including increased sickness, unemployment and bereavement, with associated consequences for mental health and financial security. Accepting and planning for this is prudent, and many institutions have already reacted fairly and responsibly. Unfortunately, others have not.

The well-documented ills of academia are largely immune to the pandemic: specifically, its management culture of hypercompetition, which resorts to bullying and abuse in an attempt to extract ever-greater productivity from a precarious, exploited and distressed workforce. Hence, even in the current circumstances, we see managers ignoring staff and students’ personal circumstances and pushing everyone to work even harder than usual, under the false assumption that homeworking is easy.

But the quotes above reflect more than the fact that campus bullies don’t suddenly mend their ways when everything goes online. Concerningly, there are also reports of behaviour that is experienced as undermining, judgemental and aggressive but might not be meant as such, as managers attempt to make sense of a strange, pressurised working environment without adequate preparation, training or supervision. People who would be appalled to learn that they were considered bullies are nevertheless asking unreasonable things of colleagues and students.

The crisis threatens to take a particularly heavy toll on marginalised and minority staff and students. When we’re stressed, fearful and frustrated, it is more difficult to be patient and forgiving. Prejudice may be enabled by going unchallenged while our attention is elsewhere. And although some people living with depression, disability, disadvantage or discrimination are finding hidden, unexpectedly useful skills, those already sidelined are generally being pushed out further.

If the focus of academia continues to be progress, publications and perfectionism, the list of those at risk of being treated unsympathetically is long. It includes those with caring or parenting responsibilities; those estranged from families; international students and single people prone to loneliness.

We must shift our priorities, putting welfare front and centre for the moment. Managers should acknowledge what people have already achieved and credit efforts that may be insignificant normally but are currently meaningful. Staff and students have made enormous shifts in a short period of time, often overcoming many difficulties. Show appreciation for this, and take time to check in with people – especially those most likely to be adversely affected – so nobody has to struggle alone with impossible workloads.

Reminders that we face this collectively and will get through it may boost morale as long as they are balanced with mechanisms that allow those who aren’t coping to seek assistance. We must create virtual support systems, encourage de-stressing activities, signpost staff and students to sources of mental health support and encourage them to seek professional help, without judgement or penalty. Useful shortcuts include learning from examples of good practice and sharing materials, lectures, videos and templates for pastoral support.

It might also help if managers encourage people to share details of their specific circumstances, noting what accommodations would enable them to work/study. If those can’t be made, projects should be deferred or re-scoped. Any deadlines that can be relaxed should be; non-essential teaching, research or future planning can be postponed. And respectful attention is urgently needed for previously unrecognised or unreported disabilities and disadvantages that shifting to online learning or isolated living has made more acute.

Managers should also keep in mind that most academics haven’t yet had time to incorporate the theoretical and pedagogical underpinnings of online learning. Hence, the need for flexibility to ditch what isn’t working. And academics should note that many students face barriers to learning online, so keep things simple.

University staff can also help each other by resisting the pressure to overwork and refraining from advertising how much they are achieving each day, mindful of how this may discourage others who lack their support systems. We should be more vigilant than ever, as bystanders, over discriminatory behaviour. And we should also go easy on ourselves, allowing for days when little gets done due to circumstances beyond our control. Accept that adequate is enough – and some days we won’t even manage that.

Let’s not make life any harder. As has been repeated online: “You are not working from home: you are at home during a crisis, trying to work.” Our priority must be to come out of this pandemic with as little personal, financial, mental or physical damage as possible. Everything else can wait.

Petra Boynton is a social psychologist who advises universities on student and staff safety and well-being.

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Reader's comments (1)

Yes, Petra Boynton is correct. This is a time for transformation and kindness in the academy. Having worked in higher education for 40 years in five different institutions from Oxbridge to red brick I shudder to consider the fact that in their rush to survive economically (during the brutalised years of neo-liberal political philosophy that damaged academic values); universities over-recruited and short-changed many international students. A damaging bullying culture was rife across the academy. Universities ignored the need for staff development to address the many diverse cultural and pedagogic differences but also put staff lives in danger from the ‘virus soup’ on campus at the start of each term without any thought apart from economic survival. We cannot go back, but in trying to get that balance of speaking truth to power, but we must do so in love and not continue with the damaging blue-print of the past. The opportunity to change the ‘globalisation of indifference’ is in our hands so let’s not waste this chance for kindness to staff and students.