Professor Kate Lister, Head of Academic Professional Development, Arden University
In 2018, Ribeiro et al said ‘psychological suffering is inherent in academic life’ (Ribeiro et al., 2018). But does it have to be? During my years in academia I’ve lived through budget cuts, leadership debacles, not-so-voluntary redundancies, harrowing curriculum reviews, toxic cultures, unmanageable workloads and some of the highest workplace stress I’ve never known. But academia can also be a place of joy; teaching can be incredibly rewarding, research can be utterly enlightening, academics are amazing people and I’d never want to work anywhere else. So why is it so hard?
In my research on student mental wellbeing, I found that there are barriers and enablers inherent within university cultures, systems and practices for students, and that almost anything can be a barrier or an enabler to wellbeing, depending on how it’s designed and how the student experiences it (Lister, Seale and Douce, 2021). I classified these barriers and enablers into a taxonomy, below.
The studies I’ve been doing at Arden University indicate that the barriers/enablers model of wellbeing might also hold true for academic staff as well as students. So, I put a call out on social media, to find out what the fabulous academic hivemind of Twitter thought.
“Hey academic Twitter. 🙂 I’m doing some work on barriers and enablers of academic staff wellbeing and would love your help! I’m finding extrinsic factors (workload, institutional culture, perm/temp contract, colleagues…) and intrinsic ones (confidence, sense of belonging, feeling valued by the institution, feeling like the institution supports their growth and development, etc.) all contribute to academic wellbeing. I’d love to hear your thoughts! What am I missing?”
I got a fantastic response from academics around the world (thank you everyone!), and I found three key themes in the responses.
Culture, values and being valued
Institutional culture, a sense of being valued, and the feeling of institutional values being aligned with one’s own, were clearly enablers to wellbeing. Positive examples included when “you really believe that your institution values and demonstrates equity” (@KMBorto) and “Feeling like what you do makes a real difference to the lives of others” (@ResearcherDot). However, barriers to wellbeing were also identified in this area: @motheroftheses said “Feeling like the institution’s values and actions aren’t aligned has made me unwell in past positions”, and @DrSchniff highlighted the harm of “Well-being and/or resilience being used as a stick to beat people with (if you were more resilient you’d cope better) rather than addressing systemic issues”. One response highlighted the need for “a happy medium. Overt treatment as replaceable cog: truly demoralizing. Treated as *so* essential that you’re unable to take your holiday (or weekend) because everything will collapse: also corrosive” (@a_m_alcorn0131).
Leadership, practices and environments
Hot desking and open plan offices were definite barriers! @MichellePyer talked about “Open plan offices with no spaces for time out (in an ‘I just need a minute’ way!)” and @RachaelEllen_ said “I have to book my own desk via an app, a process which sends me 3 separate emails, including one the night before reminding me I have booked the desk…including on a Sunday night.” Other barriers included, unsurprisingly, “Salary Compression” (@MulfordTweets), “centralisation of, and cutbacks to, professional and support services” (@DrStellaCoyle), and “allowing [post-graduate research] students to fall into a gap between staff and student” (@WromanticHistry). Meanwhile, positive or enabling circumstances were “Having some flexibility to work from home/hybrid” (@dremilyrichard) and “Having control over one’s capacity, workload and time” (@Stefedu123) “opportunities for advancement” (@dapati), “academic development” (@jennywahwah), “management that really listens to people (@Carita_Eklund), and, the ultimate dream, “efficient meetings that actually achieve things” (@Maureen473).
Confidence, self-awareness and trust
Imposter syndrome was seen as a common barrier to wellbeing, with some seeing no end to this in sight; for example, @ChloeinHE said “The imposter syndrome I thought would go away once I was on a perm contract is still very much here! Maybe when I finish my PhD? (doubt it)”. Self-awareness was also a theme; @LindaGreening4 said “I think one of the main barriers is self-realisation for some – actually realising your wellbeing is suffering rather than finding a way to adapt and move on because the latter is a rewarded strategy and thus stretching the normal to unachievable for others”. Finally, a crucial enabler was seen to be trust: having trust in your institution and feeling that your institution has trust in you. As @Carita_Eklund said, “without trust there is nothing”.
Institutions can clearly do much more to promote staff wellbeing than provide the odd mindfulness workshop (Leigh, 2019). My taxonomy of barriers and enablers for students identifies that all the themes that could be barriers could also be enablers, depending on how they were designed and experienced by students. The Twitter responses seem to suggest a similar duality. Being valued by the institution could be a barrier or an enabler; development (versus lack of) confidence and skills are important factors in wellbeing (Dinu et al., 2021), and the potential impact of leadership and environments on wellbeing, both positive and negative, is well recognised in the literature (e.g. McGuire and McLaren, 2009; Donaldson-Feilder, Munir and Lewis, 2013). Finally, a factor in wellbeing is the complex and multi-layered nature of ‘different kinds of trust’ (Tallant, 2022); academics may trust institutions’ academic rigour or quality but may not trust them to look after staff wellbeing needs, and they may not feel the institution has trust in them.
This article is a call to action for institutions to take time to embed a positive culture where staff feel valued, create positive environments where staff have flexibility and development opportunities, and ensure that they trust, and can be trusted by, their academic staff. And, of course, where the policy on hot desks is carefully considered.
Professor Kate Lister is Head of Academic Professional Development at Arden University, a researcher in accessibility and inclusion at the Open University, and an expert associate at Advance HE. Kate’s research focuses on disability, accessibility, equity, inclusion and mental wellbeing in higher education; it encompasses academic development and innovative practice in inclusive pedagogy, curricula and assessment, and leadership to facilitate inclusivity and positive change in higher education.
Dinu, L.M. et al. (2021) ‘A Case Study Investigating Mental Wellbeing of University Academics during the COVID-19 Pandemic’, Education Sciences, 11(11), p. 702. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci11110702.
Donaldson-Feilder, E., Munir, F. and Lewis, R. (2013) ‘Leadership and Employee Well-being’, in The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Leadership, Change, and Organizational Development. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, pp. 155–173. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118326404.ch8.
Leigh, J. (2019) ‘An Embodied Approach in a Cognitive Discipline’, in M. Breeze, Y. Taylor, and C. Costa (eds) Time and Space in the Neoliberal University. Cham: Springer International Publishing, pp. 221–248. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-15246-8_10.
Lister, K., Seale, J. and Douce, C. (2021) ‘Mental health in distance learning: a taxonomy of barriers and enablers to student mental wellbeing’, Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-learning, 36(2). Available at: http://oro.open.ac.uk/75544/ (Accessed: 8 March 2021).
McGuire, D. and McLaren, L. (2009) ‘The impact of physical environment on employee commitment in call centres: The mediating role of employee well‐being’, Team Performance Management: An International Journal, 15(1/2), pp. 35–48. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1108/13527590910937702.
Ribeiro, Í.J.S. et al. (2018) ‘Stress and Quality of Life Among University Students: A Systematic Literature Review’, Health Professions Education, 4(2), pp. 70–77. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hpe.2017.03.002. Tallant, J. (2022) ‘Trusting What Ought to Happen’, Erkenntnis [Preprint]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-022-00608-9.
Kate/ colleague NTF/ External Examiner,
But what about the classic academic/ teaching staff dis-ablers â expectation and requirement for us to be âacademic superheroesâ (see Ian Hayâs book of same title)â¦â¦polymaths who need to be excellent teachers, researchers, consultants/ income generators, student mentors/ personal tutors, collegiate and supportive colleaguesâ¦..not to mention good partners, parents and citizens; all of which against the backdrop of Covid/ recovery, insecure, short-term employment/ contracts, general austerity, and specific HEI financial stricturesâ¦â¦..
Oh, and lest I forget, there are the historical, but still very much in evidence, biases towards reward for researchers, as opposed to excellent academic teachers. For example, I was made a National Teaching Fellow (NTF) in 2007 and â lucky for me â I got a very generous Â£10,000 from the HEA as was; this enabled me to enjoy a number of academic adventures, that I would otherwise not have been possible.
I grieve for following cadres of NTFs who get absolutely nothing as a reward from AdvanceHE/ Government! Shameful. Just a pat on the head (which is something but, in my book tokenistic). Some few get something e.g. Â£1-2,000 from their own HEI. Half a loaf is better than none. And a minority gain advancement to professorship via a âteaching routeââ¦â¦..but researchers still get (most of) the good tunes!
But whatâs the point of research if it can not be communicated and explained to a waiting planet and citizenry (and contribute to the betterment of humans and non-humans)? Blessed are the teachersâ¦â¦.
(Dr) James (Derounian) De Montfort/ SLCC
Dr James Derounian National Teaching Fellow Direct: 0781 351 6883 Web: http://www.slcc.co.uk ð² Consider the environment. Do you really need to print this email? The Society of Local Council Clerks is a company limited by guarantee and registered in England and Wales with company registration number 10566132. Registered office: Suite 2.01, Collar Factory, 112 St Augustine Street, Taunton, Somerset, TA1 1QN.