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Staff mental health 2019-2021: What has changed?

  • 16 June 2021
  • By Liz Morrish

This blog was kindly contributed by two-time HEPI paper author and independent scholar, Dr Liz Morrish. You can find Liz on Twitter @lizmorrish.

It is clear to anyone reading the press coverage this year that, during the pandemic, universities have become even more pressured places to work. As well as the stress of the sudden ‘pivot’ to online teaching and further impositions on over-extended workloads, we see almost daily reports of course and departmental closures and hundreds of redundancies. The effect of metrics is being felt in a much more acute way as calamitous news is justified with statistics on undergraduate applications or research income. But sometimes these decisions seem to be made without any obvious precipitating cause. Distinguished departments of modern languages, history and archaeology are being axed with reasoning like ‘well, everyone else is doing it’. We see scholars being selected for redundancy because their grant income falls beneath some arbitrary quartile. Others are being subject to a form of ideological cleansing because their work is so thoroughly interdisciplinary that it resonates outside of their own discipline – a success perversely read as failure to demonstrate mainstream orthodoxy.

One mid-career senior lecturer, in a thread about academic redundancies on Facebook, commented:

It seems to me that there is no appreciation of the mental health burden, on all staff, of threatening staff … In the 3 redundancy rounds I have observed people who previously seemed to thrive on the usual stress of academia fall apart under threat. Also, a few times now people who thought they would be OK again after they were told they were no longer at risk have just mentally collapsed and needed time off. I think a big factor was that many people felt the pressure and stress of the redundancies.

Redundancies have upset the delicate balance of trust between employer and employee. As well as a pandemic crisis, there is a crisis of managerial overreach. Academics who have invested in ever-specialised training and research will feel aggrieved to be told their work is no longer valued. To develop the department’s curriculum in line with your expertise now carries the risk of making you less employable elsewhere or vulnerable to de-funding, even when you have been successful in acquiring research grants. When well-regarded and accomplished scholars are cast aside, some at professorial or head of department level, it leads more junior colleagues to wonder whether that institution deserves their own loyalty. It seems shocking that universities are so willing to jettison the asset that is most highly valued by students – their staff. Perhaps we should ask why marketing departments aren’t taking a greater share of the blame for failing to sell the university’s ‘product’.

It is not just redundancies this year which have taken a toll on mental health. An article by Lizzie Nixon and Robert Scullion notes that ‘the university, too, is a most emotional arena’, and documents the rise of emotional labour under marketisation in universities in which a charged relationship has developed between the anxious student navigating an uncertain future and the all-too-responsible lecturer as customer service provider. In turn, managing student anxiety has multiplied the emotional toll on the lecturer. We can imagine how much this has intensified over the past year and in circumstances in which students, quite understandably, have felt disoriented and alone. 

Other pressures this year have resulted from differences of perceived hazard associated with the ‘covid-safe campus’. Despite forewarnings from the US and the growing recognition that Covid is not spread by buildings but by people, universities went ahead with in-person teaching in the autumn of 2020, under government duress. Predictably, Covid infections spread rapidly in halls of residence and in off-campus social spaces.

Staff were then faced with pressure from management to work in an environment where the risk from indoor aerosol transmission was known about, but the recommended mitigation was via social distancing. This offered indemnity against litigation, but not against a sense of betrayal by staff. As each university flaunted its biosecurity protocols on the website, the inadequacy of these was dubbed ‘hygiene theatre’. By analogy, managers’ response to claims of stress in the form of online wellness training could be termed ‘wellness theatre’. Universities are still very much the anxiety machines described in Pressure Vessels I, 2019. Staff continue to function with what has been labelled high-functioning anxiety, but it not acceptable to require medication in order to do a job.

Online teaching has been another source of overload. A professor of physics at a Russell Group university, teaching a new module this year, estimated that it required 400% more effort to develop and teach than a traditional, face-to-face course (personal communication). While online teaching offers some advantages, it levies yet another claim on the overstretched time budget allocated by the workload model.

None of this is to overlook the equally demanding picture of higher education confronting vice chancellors and their management teams who are trying to operate within a system of marketization that has failed to save costs and installed some damaging consequences. They are gazing into a future of potential fee reductions, defunding of the arts and humanities, interest repayments on estate renewal, fewer overseas students, competition from FE and a body of employees protesting a range of issues from pension contributions to job insecurity.

The Pressure Vessels reports of 2019 and 2020 were well received by front line academics. However, I have not been able to find evidence that many of the recommendations have been implemented. Working from home, aka ‘distributed working’ may signal a turn to a higher-trust environment – one of the recommendations in the report (2019, p.47).

There is much talk of re-imagining higher education, and all factions can agree that there is much that needs changing. But, whereas higher education leaders may envisage a digitally enabled university, unbundling its courses in an international marketplace, others may have a broader agenda for reform. I would like to see a dialogue about the purpose of universities and the structures needed to support their mission. Universities are not consultancies, working to external briefs in the gig economy. Researchers do apply their work to everyday practical problems, but there needs to be space for this to materialize from speculative ideation. We must ask, if universities cannot provide the security to test new ideas, then where should these activities take place? There is an urgent need, in the context of the current situation of pandemic, managerial and market-driven crisis, for a course correction. At the top of the list is the restoration of academic tenure as the most likely way to safeguard academic freedom, job security and the integrity of UK universities.

https://bookwhen.com/hepi#focus=ev-sr66-20210624090000

2 comments

  1. Paul Woodgates says:

    I fully agree that redundancy is a horrible experience for those involved (and indeed for others in the university too). It can have very unpleasant economic and mental health consequences.

    However, my experience is mostly the opposite to the caricature here of university leaders announcing redundancies on a whim or without cause. I see leaders conducting deep analysis of problems, seeking alternative avenues if they possibly can, and being very reluctant to enforce redundancies.

    And can it really be right that redundancy can never be justified? Universities change over time – and as this piece points out, there is a need for more change in the future. Change in what a university does necessarily means change in the capabilities it needs – the numbers, disciplines, specialisms and skills of its people. In many cases, individuals develop to match the change in institutional priorities, but sometimes that is not possible. There may on occasion, sadly, be a good reason for closing a department; if so, redundancy may be inevitable.

    Where I do agree, is that university track record of handling redundancies has sometimes been poor. If it must be done, there is a duty to do it with compassion and understanding. A full range of support should be offered – in both personal and practical terms.

    And by the way, marketing staff – like those in all professional services functions – have sometimes been subject to redundancy programmes too. And the staff involved are just as likely to be committed to the university and its mission, and just as likely to suffer mental health problems as a result of redundancy.

  2. Dr (sorry I don't want to be fired) says:

    Hi Paul

    Of course Universities need to be financially responsible and sometimes redundancy is an unfortunate necessity. I’m a person that was made redundant in the past and I understand why it happened. My role was unsustainable and keeping me on would have hastened the demise of the organisation. It wasn’t a great experience but I understood the situation.

    The issue with many universities (my own current employer included). Is they don’t seem to be financially prudent, waving the axe of redundancy not because those roles aren’t needed… but because the uni is in poor financial health. External factors have greatly impacted most uni’s finances of course, but that doesn’t mean senior management haven’t been making very poor decisions.

    My own employer has committed to a series of new buildings costing hundreds of millions. This is set against declining student numbers.. so why do we need more space?

    I think managment’s idea is if we have few shiny new buildings, we will get more students.

    This ignores the fact a lot of the existing building stock is in a very poor state of repair and not suitable for purpose..

    So for my course when I do an open day… its in a building with buckets in corridors for the leaks…broken windows… cladding hanging off, scary lifts etc… A few new buildings don’t help sell a course in a building thats embarrassing.

    We seem to have no money for day to day activities and maintenance… But lot of money for big white elephant building projects.

    If this money was say invested in fixing up the buildings that actually exist, combined with ensuring staffing levels were adequate.. we possibly wouldn’t be in the bottom 10% of the university league table… Not sure a few shiny buildings will bring the students back… do they want very expensive halls of residence?

    Also we have some courses that get investment…if its a subject the VC thinks is worthy…shiny new building+tonnes of bespoke facilites… Unworthy course, you stay in the portacabin and if you can’t recruit we will shut you down and fire your ass. No metrics or logic to this just senior managment taste and whims.

    So we have staff who have been threatened with redundancy. Our revenue has decreased but senior management’s decisions have pushed us further into financial risk.

    I’ve seen the opposite senior managment don’t conduct deep analysis of the problems. This is because they don’t acknowledge that they themselves are capable of making mistakes. If senior managment believe they are infallible and every decision they make is the correct one, then its impossible to change track.

    Our execs strategy for big projects is:
    1: Make a decision
    2: Hire consultants to run a survey/consolation to provide “evidence” to back up decision no 1. (if they find evidence to the contrary thats ignored.
    3: Implement decision ignoring any our cry, claiming hands tied because “evidence” is against it.
    4: Fail to release methodology for gathering “evidence”
    5: Behave like the wronged party in the face of any legitimate criticism
    Repeat

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