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Work Makes You Sick: Speed Ups on the Academic Assembly Line
March 7, 2014 2:00 PM   Subscribe

Mental health problems are on the rise among UK academics amid the pressures of greater job insecurity, constant demand for results and an increasingly marketised higher education system.
A recent blog on the Guardian Higher Education Network blog, which highlighted a "culture of acceptance" in universities around mental health issues, has received an unprecedented response, pointing to high levels of distress among academics.

The article, which reported instances of depression, sleep issues, eating disorders, alcoholism, self-harming, and even suicide attempts among PhD students, has been shared hundreds of thousands of times and elicited comments outlining similar personal experiences from students and academics.

But while anecdotal accounts multiply, mental health issues in academia are little-researched and hard data is thin on the ground.

However, a study published in 2013 by the University and College Union (UCU) used health and safety executive measures, assessed against a large sample of over 14,000 university employees, to reveal growing stress levels among academics prompted by heavy workloads, a long hours culture and conflicting management demands. Academics experience higher stress than those in the wider population, the survey revealed.
Previously (but not too previously) on Metafilter:
On academic labor: "I Quit" Lit, Death of an Adjunct, Joining the Ranks: Demystifying Harvard's Tenure System
On student mental health: We Just Can't Have You Here, Stress at MIT
On changes in academia over recent years or decades: The Tuition Is Too Damn High, The Corporatization of Higher Education, How the American University was Killed, Whither the University?
posted by eviemath (22 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
One reason for a high rate of reported mental illness might just be that universities provide a safer environment to come out and get help than most workplaces.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:18 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]


Does that explain the recent rise? Or does the introduction of tougher research kpis leading into the REF and tighter deadlines, increases in teaching hours, assignment turnaround and requirements for improved feedback quality on the back of 9k fees explain it better?
posted by biffa at 2:30 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]


Not just academics - other staff at Universities too. They usually share the same HR cultures.
posted by BinaryApe at 2:38 PM on March 7


We American academics have to keep in mind the differences between the British data set and our own context, but I know many of my colleagues here in the US will attest to similar levels of stress. Of course, whether this is a new thing or not is a much larger question. It seems plausible to me that the academic workplace has become more stressful over time because of decreased funding and the imposition of more commercial measures of success.
posted by smrtsch at 3:07 PM on March 7


Aristotle defined slavery as the means by which the those in charge guarantee their livelihoods. To the degree that corporations outright purchase government governments - and government agrees that education is little more than utilitarian skills gathering for the prols who "work in the fields" - to that degree, academicians, like so many billions of others, become slaves.
posted by Vibrissae at 3:13 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]


Not just academics - other staff at Universities too. They usually share the same HR cultures.

Sometimes, but sometimes not at all. In the US this will vary significantly between institutions.

Comparisons to slavery are silly, but academia has absolutely been a part of the general erosion of workers rights and conditions. One would expect mental health implications of that in many fields, not just universities.
posted by Dip Flash at 3:24 PM on March 7


I feel like UK higher education is becoming a joke and the punchline will be "The Chancellors"
posted by srboisvert at 3:27 PM on March 7 [4 favorites]


Vibrissae, Aristotle was very much in favor of slavery and is probably not a philosopher you really want to be using as an authority on its definition and nature.
Where then there is such a difference as that between soul and body, or between men and animals (as in the case of those whose business is to use their body, and who can do nothing better), the lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master. For he who can be, and therefore is, another's and he who participates in rational principle enough to apprehend, but not to have, such a principle, is a slave by nature.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 3:28 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


We have an on-staff therapist for academics at our university, who I see when things get bad. It never fails to amaze me how she knows every single colleague I ever mention. And how when I mention her to my (close) colleagues, they are all, "oh yes, I see her too."

Of all my colleagues I know well enough to know such personal things as whether they have ever been on antidepressants or taken mental health leave, they ALL have.

Of course it's great that our university offers therapy (for free!) And mental health leave. And that the culture is accepting enough that we can talk about it. But all that is kind of an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.
posted by lollusc at 4:45 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]


Not just academics - other staff at Universities too. They usually share the same HR cultures.

I think there are factors in the mental health issues of academics that aren't a problem for other staff. For example, the lack of job security is not (always) a problem for non-academic staff. At my institution new job postings for academics are generally a 1-3 year contract, often part time. New postings for administrative staff are generally full time and continuing positions. If an admin person loses their job, they can usually find a similar position elsewhere in the same city, at a non-university institution. If an academic loses their job (or is not renewed), they usually have to move overseas to find a new position.

Secondly the whole of academic culture is built around competition against your peers. Together with lack of job security, it makes it a very non-collegial environment. People are (often) assholes to each other at a level that I don't see in the non-academic staff. And if you are on short term contracts, your every interaction at work is basically a job interview for the next contract. You have to be on your best behaviour at all times.

Then the whole idea of peer review means that every single piece of work an academic does receives the most critical possible comments, and since they are usually anonymous, they are sometimes framed in very snarky, hurtful ways. Even your best work you ever publish in your career, and your award-winning grant applications will have had harsh comments made about them by anonymous colleagues, and you'll always be wondering who it was among those people sitting with you at drinks after a conference who called your paper "juvenile" or "poorly researched" or "amusingly inept".

I'm sure that administrative staff have their own issues, but I'm not sure that it's the same level of relentless grinding down of confidence that academics suffer.
posted by lollusc at 5:48 PM on March 7 [8 favorites]


We have an on-staff therapist for academics at our university, who I see when things get bad. It never fails to amaze me how she knows every single colleague I ever mention. And how when I mention her to my (close) colleagues, they are all, "oh yes, I see her too."

She should be fired and have her credential yanked.
posted by srboisvert at 7:18 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]


I think that meant the colleagues talk about the therapist, not the other way around.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:25 PM on March 7 [7 favorites]


Vibrissae, Aristotle was very much in favor of slavery and is probably not a philosopher you really want to be using as an authority on its definition and nature.

On the contrary it seems to me that the slaver's definition of slavery is exactly the one you'd want to look at. After all, a "slave" in Aristotle's time could be, for example, a banker who lived and worked independently with his own family, and merely paid a tax to his owner. That is not too far off from how many of us live today but the Greeks recognized his condition as slavery, which I think is Vibrissae's point.
posted by mrbigmuscles at 8:03 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


Yes, what Lobster mitten said. And when I said she knows the people I talk about, of course she doesn't say if she is seeing them professionally. My guess is that she is seeing enough of them that she knows the ones she isn't seeing by reputation, since the others probably also talk about them.
posted by lollusc at 8:30 PM on March 7


I've just been listening to Philip Mirowski's lecture called "The Commercialization of Science is a Passel of Ponzi Schemes" (MP3), which is pretty darn interesting. (PDF here.)

It's mostly about US universities and science spin-offs, but there are larger lessons here as well.
posted by sneebler at 9:22 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]


Honest question. Wtf is the point if having an on site "therapist" to "see when times get bad?" Unless she is handing out adderall and Ativan, that's not how therapy works. That's a school nurse.

Neoliberal efficiency spares no one.
posted by spitbull at 12:02 AM on March 8


handing out adderall and ativan is certainly not how therapy works. what's wrong with there being an on-site therapist to see (other than it being a band aid solution to a deeper problem)?
posted by Dysk at 12:54 AM on March 8


I think that meant the colleagues talk about the therapist, not the other way around.

Whoops. My bad.

However, I do agree with the criticism of the therapist being onsite. She should be offsite and make sure to schedule visits from people at the same institution non-consecutively. Otherwise confidentiality is blown by people merely having a view of her office or sitting in her waiting room.

Faculty vote on each others tenure and have god like control of graduate student's futures so confidentiality is probably more serious than most cases.
posted by srboisvert at 5:49 AM on March 8


The FPP is about the UK. Thatcher abolshed tenure more than 20 years ago, and replaced it with Management consultant report-generating gibberish activities, like KPIs. An especially dysfunctional aspect of the British system, on display throughout its twenty-year existence, is that the particular KPIs that the British universities must strive to satisfy have varied at the whim of successive UK governments. ; I have friends in this system and it has destroyed a four-century long culture of free inquiry.
posted by lalochezia at 6:46 AM on March 8 [4 favorites]


Interesting and timely for me, as I'm about to become non-academic professional staff at a massive US research university. My impressions from the interviews and phone calls is that it is a busy and demanding but collegial and supportive office. We do directly serve the faculty, so I expect some friction, but after 5 years of grad school and 2+ of a postdoc I have a reasonable understanding of the faculty mindset. And yes, the pressure on them is increasing.
posted by Existential Dread at 7:27 AM on March 8


I have found being on staff at a university to be so much less stressful than my PhD program was that it's not even in the same universe. My mental and physical health have improved exponentially since I left the research-and-teaching track. Seriously: all work can be stressful, but academia has a particular problem. Research staff also seem pretty stressed out, though, and I don't know whether they would be considered academics.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:52 AM on March 8 [2 favorites]


Yeah, the KPIs, RAEs, etc. have all contributed to make academia pretty dysfunctional in the U.K., along with increase administration that parallel the U.S. situation. I strongly prefer the German system where most PhD students get pushed into industry right out of grad school.

Also : Students are made to believe that 'university is all about them'
posted by jeffburdges at 4:53 AM on April 1


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