These testimonies were provided for our recent investigation into the “epidemic” of poor mental health among HE staff. They attest to the mental strain of the current working conditions at UK universities, as highlighted in Liz Morrish’s HEPI report “Pressure Vessels”. Some have been anonymised per the request of the contributors.
“I’m on strike because I don’t think I will physically or mentally be able to keep working if workload conditions don’t improve. I’m relatively new to [redacted] and my workload only really started to intensify in April 2019 to a level which has become the new normal. In between July and November, I lost 15lbs that I didn’t have to lose because I forget to eat when I’m under pressure. Over the summer and autumn, I would get to work, go cry in the bathroom, and then get on with the rest of my day.
At the end of October, I got the first wave of a continuous chest infection that I kept thinking was gone but that came back the day after the autumn teaching term ended, lasted over the entire holiday break, and then came back again on the Monday of the first week of the spring teaching term. It’s now finally gone (I think!) after a lot of blood tests, some antibiotics and catching up on sleep over the course of this current strike.
In November, I had a doctor tell me I needed to limit my stress to prevent what should be a separate minor health issue from becoming very serious but I haven’t done a very good job with that. Around that time, I stopped sleeping through the night – something that has continued to present except for over the holidays and during the strike. I’ve been actively trying to manage my workload but every effort I make just downloads my extra work onto people who are more junior than I, who are equally overworked, and who have less power to manage their own workloads. I think this is why many of the more serious mental and physical health issues with HE are amongst more junior staff; as we gain seniority, we have a greater ability to move excess work to more junior staff. I love my job but I’m quite worried that I just physically won’t be able to keep going.”
“One of the things about managing your mental health is realising that you need help. That moment of realisation came when I looked in the mirror one day and didn’t recognise the woman staring back at me. My workload consists of potentially teaching all year round. This means that staff in my position are given nearly double the teaching load compared to our counterpart in other Schools. Often I continue teaching when the rest of the university stops. This situation is unfair and management know this. Yet, despite repeated attempts to negotiate better working conditions, pressure to meet our target hours continues. “Have I met my hours? Does this work count towards my hours? CAN this count towards my hours?” – these questions are constantly in the back of my mind, and the feeling of not doing enough is exasperated even more.
So, I work with this mindset, and work becomes my life. There is no work/life balance because there is simply too much to do. No matter how hard I work – evenings, weekends, holidays – it is never enough, or rather the hours don’t “count”. Over the years I’ve become less motivated to put more effort into my work because quantity, not quality, is emphasised. I now work to get things done instead of making things better. I hate myself for working this way but it is the only way I know to manage this workload.
Inevitably this way of working has chipped away at my mental health. Bit by bit I’ve adapted to increasing levels of anxiety, believing my own lies – “It’s just for now” or “It’ll be OK” until it isn’t. On that day, that woman in the mirror showed me the truth – I was not OK and I needed help. I sought help from the NHS because the university does not provide appropriate mental health support for staff. The help I received was a lifeline, but ultimately temporary because the problem of my working conditions has yet to be addressed.”
“Stefan Grimm, a Professor of Toxicology at the Imperial College London, committed suicide in 2014. It is not unreasonable to consider him a direct victim of ‘university metrics’. Stefan was put under immense pressure, which affected his mental well-being and led to his tragic gesture. Regardless of any potential individual responsibility in this tragedy, it is worth pointing out that the work environment that we have created in British academia has become extremely unhealthy. I do experience this every day. Almost all policy discussions in the university are driven by financial profit – students are valued as long as they pay fees, and staff as long as they bring students (with their fees) or research grants.
We are encouraged to consider students as customers and colleagues as competitors. This is not just ethically wrong but also leads to extremely inefficient management of the university. Staff is prone to become disillusioned and massively overworked, students are insufficiently cared for and morale is generally low. Though most lecturers care deeply about their work, most wonder whether this is really the kind of job that they had once chosen and loved. Detachment and disillusionment are highly detrimental to the generation of a vibrant, and productive environment – one of the many reasons for the current crisis in academia. Personally, I still love my research and the interaction with the students, but work pressure generated by an increasingly bureaucratic and corporate university is taking its toll on my physical and mental health. It is important that we remember Stefan and that we have the courage to demand a more humane and supportive work environment.”
- Umberto Albarella, Professor of Zooarchaeology, University of Sheffield
“Unlike many experiences of stress that people have in their lives, the stress of precarious employment in HE is often chronic and long term. Funding for my PhD ended in 2005 and I did not obtain a full time permanent contract until 2013. In those eight years, I only earned enough to pay income tax twice and only had one contract, for nine months, that was not hourly paid. Even now, and even though I know I am well paid under my current contract, I struggle to undertake basic financial tasks for fear of looking at my bank balance. I think that the strain of low pay is made worse if you are working class and in higher education. On the one hand, the imperative to ‘get a job’ is in working class culture from an early age. On the other hand, family and friends cannot understand why someone so highly qualified is unemployed in their 30s. Add into this tropes about lazy students and indulgent dons in the press and popular culture and you have a ready mix of shame and guilt to add to not unreasonable levels of anxiety and depression which have to be managed alongside low pay and no job security.
Of course, one might think that all of this is waved away by magic upon finally getting a permanent contract. However, in the seven years I have been in my present job have been significant redundancies in the institution in all but one of those years. Our staff survey results are horrendous to the point whereby management has not run one for a couple of years and appears to dare not do so any time soon. Having spent my 20s and early 30s earning what might be politely described as the square root of bugger all, I have no assets behind me and therefore despite being well paid could not possibly leave the sector despite how horrendous it has become. Most people had gotten used to the idea that we’d stick it out until 60 and then at least see out our remaining years on a good pension but it now looks like we won’t be retiring until 67 and then to a substandard pension. It beggars belief to even consider what students will think of me as a 67 year old fart trying to tell them something that they might think to be useful. When you stack all of this up, I think what you’re seeing in the strikes is not so much revolutionary fervour as nihilism. Universities could probably weather the former, but unless it can address the latter it feels as though Higher Education will only live on now as some kind of zombie form of what it was or what it could and should be.”
“The neoliberal university is a place where the care for staff and students is secondary to profit and attainment in various spurious metrics. That has led to a situation in which staff are exploited, and where precarity is a central means through which the university governs. If you are always precarious you will exploit yourself and that suits the current model for Higher Education. This is happening at a time in which the sector is contracting – particularly in the humanities. It is now not uncommon for early career staff to be working in multiple institutions on hourly paid contracts, whilst caring for family and trying to publish ‘high ranking articles’, at the same time these same people often experience poor interpersonal treatment by staff senior to them, who indeed also feel bullied by the institutions they work in. This is evidently not only bad for staff, but bad for education and students too. Although some schools and departments mitigate this through good management and collegiality, this is an exception to the norm, and as a result many more encounter the university as a toxic workplace at the same time as it is one in which they are deeply invested. In such an environment it is unsurprising that mental wellbeing is deteriorating. The struggle against casualisation and precarity is one of the key fights in ongoing UCU strike, and it is one that we must win.”
- Malcom James, Senior lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies, University of Sussex
The Badger also approached Liz Morrish, now independent scholar and author of the HEPI report “Pressure Vessels”. We asked about her motivation for writing the report, and her personal experiences with the working conditions which have culminated in nation-wide strike action. She provided the following comment:
“I wrote the report, Pressure Vessels, in the spring of 2019. It emerged from my strength of feeling that many of my academic colleagues across the UK and beyond, were finding their working lives becoming intolerable under the mounting pressure. It was a case of the boiled frog, whereby each increase in itself was absorbed into the workload, but over the course of a few years, these incremental changes added up to workloads that were simply unsustainable. Universities were introducing new workload models to try and make workloads measurable and more equal. But academics were finding that the hours allocated to each task represented an undercount (e.g. 10 hours for undergraduate dissertation supervision and marking), and many important duties did not count as work at all, e.g. reviewing research grant applications or journal articles for publishers, or acting as an expert witness in court.
As the 2000s wore on, academics were brought more and more under surveillance. Vice chancellors were increasingly able to track ‘performance indicators’ such as publications, citations, research grants and teaching evaluations. Increasingly, each academic was asked to become an exceptional performer in all areas. All professions require employees to be competent, of course, but clearly, not everyone can be exceptional in all areas. Also throughout the 2000s, the proportion of permanent, full time lectureships declined, and these posts were replaced by temporary and part-time, hourly paid staff. Students were being taught by people whose expertise was not being rewarded and who were unlikely to see them through to graduation. Meanwhile, staff who did not know whether they would have a job next term found anxiety mounting with each precarious contract.
All of these factors weighed heavily on the mental health of academics, and we see a huge rise in the number of staff accessing counselling and mental health services. The Pressure Vessels report shows that between 2009 and 2015, counselling referrals rose by an average of 77 per cent, while staff referrals to occupational health services during the same period rose by 64 per cent. Since the report was published, an updated analysis of 17 higher education institutions (HEIs) has shown a continued rise in staff access to counselling and occupational health referrals of 16.45% and 18.77% respectively from 2016 to 2018 inclusive (work in progress).
We simply cannot continue to accept year-on-year deterioration in the mental health of UK academics. As one academic on Twitter out it, academics have been “forced by management into stress positions”. There have, to date, been two acknowledged deaths by suicide linked to conditions of work at UK universities. Cardiff University lecturer, Malcolm Anderson, took his life on campus when, after years of appeals to his manager, his workload had escalated out of control. Another death by suicide was triggered by pressures to meet targets for research funding. Professor Stefan Grimm at Imperial College, London, had been rebuked by his manager over this issue.
It was these deaths that made me decide I had a duty to speak to students about this. Academics’ working conditions are student learning conditions. And so, four years ago, when a colleague fell ill with work-related stress, and with their permission, I spoke to their students and explained the situation. The students were distressed to know about how these pressures affected their lecturers and they were sympathetic. In fact, the contrast with their concern and management’s disregard for the safety of staff was both marked and moving. And so I wrote about this encounter in this blog.
It turned out that speaking and writing about academics and mental health – in essence being critical of management, even though this was a sector-wide problem, was not going to be tolerated by the management of my institution. It was clear that if I wanted to maintain my academic freedom, I was going to have to resign my academic post and continue my work as an independent scholar. And so that’s what I did, and I wrote about that too.
I am continuing to write because this is important. This is about the lives and careers of my injured colleagues. I have the freedom to write without fear of victimisation now, and colleagues tell me it makes a difference even to know somebody cares. And I’m enormously glad to know that students are also alarmed by this. This is a generation which has a bit more familiarity with mental health issues than some older people, and they don’t regard it as a stigma or damaging to reputation. It is only by speaking the truth about mental health, identifying the causes and acting to prevent stress, that we will have any chance of making universities rewarding places to work once again. Your lecturers will value your support and your voices will make an even bigger difference.”
You can read our investigation into the mental health of university staff here.