Time to take the stress out of academic life?

Out there in what some still call the ‘real world’, there are many who will profess to believe that an academic’s life is full of relaxed days and pleasant comforts. Most of those working in the academy have known for some time that this is not so. Nor is this new: I have mentioned before in this blog that as far back as the 1990s I appointed a lecturer from an external professional legal practice background who left the university a relatively short while later because the work was too stressful.

Now there is another piece of new evidence. The Scottish education union, EIS, has conducted a survey of its members, which has come up with the following finding:

‘Teaching staff in the university sector have lower levels of wellbeing and satisfaction compared to overall scores of those working across all sectors of education. Some of the factors which contribute to lecturers’ wellbeing scores include concerns over management and leadership in their institution, as well as significant workload pressures and a lack of access to appropriate professional development.’

According to the survey results the two chief causes of stress are workloads and ‘dealing with management’.

There is no question that academics, as much as anyone else, have the right to a working environment that minimises stress and creates, to the greatest extent possible, a positive sense of opportunity and inclusion and a sense that everyone is valued and supported. But there also needs to be some recognition that stress apparently caused by management is often the result of external pressures, and in the system as a whole this requires more analysis. Universities are subject to mounting regulations, controls, targets and expectations, many of them encased in a framework of bureaucracy that maximises these pressures. It is time to look again at how all of this works, both in the system as a whole and within institutions. Stressed out and overworked university staff will not secure a world class university sector.

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7 Comments on “Time to take the stress out of academic life?”

  1. Greg Foley Says:

    It would be interesting to hear of any research on whether those who choose academic careers tend to be less resilient in terms of dealing with stress. Many academics like to be left alone to get on with their work and hate control of any kind – that’s what attracts them to the job in the first place But is it realistic to aspire to that kind of working,life? And how stressful must it be to be working in the private sector in which if you don’t meet targets you get fired!

    • Wendymr Says:

      Given that at least half of all those working in academic (teaching and research) roles in the higher education sector are on insecure contracts, I think they know about stress resulting from job insecurity.

      • Greg Foley Says:

        That’s fair enough (and it took me 6 years to get a permanent contract) but equally there are very large numbers on permanent contracts and many of them, in my experience, get highly stressed and agitated whenever there is any ‘interference’ from management. Some of that ‘interference’ is not unreasonable (often little more than information gathering albeit sometimes with no clear objective), yet academics respond in a way that seems to me to be way out of proportion to what they are being asked to do.Even getting information from academics to update a website (in their own interests!) can be a hugely frustrating experience. While I accept that some management is poor and disconnected, many academics suffer from a mindset that causes stress to build up in their own heads and maybe a slightly more pragmatic perspective might help to cope with those stresses.

        Therefore, notwithstanding the very real pressures on academics on temporary contracts, I do think it is an interesting question to ask if there is an academic mindset (or personality type perhaps) that makes academics particularly prone to work-related stress.


  2. It is reasonable not to be subject to stress resulting from interactions with people who are not actually trying to achieve anything of any use.

  3. cormac Says:

    I suspect some of the problem stems from the fact that an individual academic can achieve world recognition in their field, yet have little or no say in the running of their college or department, simply because they chose not to go the administration route.
    This split between academics and management is very unfortunate. In the IoT sector in particular, there often appears to be a ‘two for a penny’ attitude among senior managers towards academics that is mirrored by a sever lack of confidence amongst staff towards lofty management….does not make for good morale…

  4. E Du C Says:

    Management in academia can be very good when trained (MBA etc) but all too often they have to herd cats who work not “for the university” but “at the university”.

    Most academics are not world leaders in their field and don’t deserve superstar status. It’s the unsackable mediocrities who are so great in number that make life so unpleasant for people around them who have ambition, drive and a positive attitude to life. This big rump of academics who are resentful, stressed and generally parasitical who personify the typical academic.

    The only way to get round all of this is to avoid giving permanent jobs where possible. Hence the recent revelation that only 30% of US academic staff have tenure. I wonder why.

  5. James Fryar Says:

    I actually think the issue is due to the evolution of the role played by the academic. The purpose, in my mind, of a university is to educate students and conduct ‘academic’ research.

    To expand a little, the difference between academic research and corporate research was that academic research was concerned with generating knowledge. Is the research of benefit to the public? Who cares, it’s about knowledge. Is the research aimed at solving a technical problem in industry? Who cares, it’s about knowledge. Is the research aimed at providing a new product? Who cares, it’s about knowledge. The purpose of tenure was to allow researchers the freedom to conduct research without the need to justify the point of that research on the basis of potential products, spin-offs, value-added, etc. The public funded the research because the results would be publicly available to anyone, including corporations.

    Now what we have is a slightly different system in which research is now viewed as a potential commercial asset. It’s now about research partnerships, strategic alliances, corporate involvement, potential spin-offs, wealth generation, and all the other buzz words that the public want to hear. You have two systems competing and academics are caught in the middle of that change.

    I think that’s the source of the stress. ‘Academic’ research is slowly being eroded into something that is very close to private sector R+D. It’s sort of like taking play-dough and mashing it into a square hole … it’ll work, but it won’t be pretty. And the notion of ‘academic’ research is effectively dead and gone.


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