Workload in HE: The broken reality

This post was anonymously written by a member of Sheffield UCU.

cw: topics related to mental health, self harm

I am an academic with a research/teaching contract, which is generally taken to be 40-40-20: 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% administrative work and service. If we factor in my 0.1 FTE buyout (which can be for things like residency outside of the university, an external partnership, senior admin roles, etc), and apply this to a 35 hour work week, then we end up with the following target breakdown of my week:

12.6 hours teaching, 12.6 hours research, 6.3 hours admin.

The reality is very different.

I am the convenor for 2 different UG modules this term, plus I teach on an MA module, which amounts to 8 hours of contact time per week, plus 4 hours of prep. That, for the record, is only because I’ve taught these modules before; it would be much more if any of the three were new. If I add in my 2 office hours (which are always full), an average 1.5 hours answering questions on discussion boards and in emails, and 2.5 hours marking or moderating per week, we are already at…17.5 hours. Now, add in personal tutee crises that can’t be handled within my office hours, which my calendar suggests amount to 0.5 hours per week on average, and an average of 1.5 hours of UG, MA, and PhD supervision per week, we’re at 20.5 hours.

Did I mention that this is my light teaching term? Last term I convened 3 UG modules.

I have two admin roles in my department, and must attend regular meetings of the entire department, various departmental subgroups, and one-to-one planning meetings related to admin. Plus Open Days, which everyone ends up on the rota for. All of this adds up to 7.5 average hours a week. This is actually far lower than my admin hours were last year; I negotiated my workload down by essentially refusing to continue with one of my previous roles.

At this point, my week is at 28 hours, which is pretty far off from the target breakdown, but at least I have 3.5 whole hours remaining for research, right? Wrong. Because now we need to consider all of the things that aren’t “workloaded”, and yet are either required for promotion, to allow your discipline to function, or required by university management to satisfy some type of independently mandated metric: Service.

Peer review. National organisation membership. Journal editorship. Research centre membership/organisation. Working groups. Letters of reference. Online fire-safety/GDPR/out of hours training. Impact training. Impact case studies. Emails about the REF. REF internal audits. It’s hard to measure these things, so I’ve been conservative, but I would estimate that local/national service plus training plus imposed workload for REF adds up to 5.5 hours per week. None of which is workloaded. All of which is, in some way or another, required.

In the end, I have negative 2 hours per working week to conduct my world leading, 4* research during the teaching term. Under-performing in research can lead someone to not pass probation, to be placed under informal performance review measures, or even to be pressured to leave under a voluntary (or not) Staff Release Scheme. And yet: negative 2 hours.

What do I choose to do? It’s a Catch-22 with repercussions for my students, my career, my family, and my health. Do I cut back on the amount of time I’m prepping for classes, not respond to my students’ questions, or not respond to a personal tutee in the midst of a serious medical crisis? Do I shortchange my research and accept the implications for promotion? Or do I work in the evenings and on weekends, which has repercussions for my family, my physical health, my mental health, and ultimately, my productivity — it’s not just unethical to have workloads this high, research on high functioning workplaces has repeatedly demonstrated that it is counterproductive.

I should say two other things about the numbers I put above. First, they will be different for every member of staff. I have a high number of contact hours, but a manageable number of students to supervise — I know staff with PhD students in the double digits, which leads to an equally overwhelming schedule. Second, those numbers represent me operating at peak efficiency. In addition to lacking any time to conduct research (let alone to write it up), they don’t include time for me to read new papers in my field, write grant applications, meet with potential research collaborators, compare pedagogy with colleagues, and — and this is a big and — there is absolutely no space for me to be unwell. If I get ill, the delicately balanced house of cards will fall.

Now look around you at the casualised staff who — on top of this — have to apply for jobs, and worry about their financial security.

When staff talk to each other about workload, we admit that we employ a combination of many “triage strategies” to survive. First, most of us try to cut back on admin and service, but meetings make up the bulk of those hours, and they are hard to avoid. We next turn to teaching prep — it doesn’t feel good to do this, but it might add an hour or so per week. The next strategies are more painful. We have to decide which student emails to reply to, and some go entirely unanswered. We have to decide between getting enough sleep, or finishing our marking on time. The already high amount of emotional labour in our day to day jobs becomes overwhelming when faced with a constant flow of these decisions.

Underpinning all of this is guilt. The drip, drip, drip of Who am I letting down this week? wears on you, it keeps you from sleeping or wakes you up in the middle of the night, it causes you to choose the option of working tonight, tomorrow, and maybe Saturday — just for a couple of hours — so that you don’t feel quite as guilty. This week.

There is a cost that comes with these hours, and these choices, and the guilt; and that cost grows each year, until the word burnout starts to loom on the horizon. Until we see our friends and colleagues engage in self-harm and unhealthy or self-sabotaging coping strategies: Ignoring problems, self-blame, misdirected anger, high levels of worry, isolating oneself, working longer hours, or alcohol, substance, or food abuse. One in three early career researchers face serious mental health problems.

The worst thing is that we all know we shouldn’t feel guilty, but we do anyway. This cost isn’t of our own making — it has been imposed on us by a government bent on turning HE into a marketised parody of itself, where education is no longer the goal, and students are measured by their financial value to the university.

I don’t have a neat and tidy solution to the problem of workload; it’s a systemic one, requiring structural shifts in the sector, and in government. But one things is very clear: There aren’t enough staff to do the fundamental work of a university. When University management prioritises expensive capital projects over staff, they place all of us at risk. When they refuse to use accurate workload models (or any at all), and when they participate in expensive, ill-advised “efficiency” metrics like restructures, they exacerbate this risk.

Unless we push back, nothing will change. Universities UK has made it very clear they feel no duty of care for their employees, and have no intention of changing their marketised “vision” for HE, despite it being very clear how this vision is harming their staff and students. So we need to be so loud that we make them hear us. I have voted Yes and Yes in UCU’s ongoing Equalities and Pay ballot because a healthy workload isn’t a perk, it’s a right we have to fight for.

However busy you are, however overwhelming your workload is, please take the time to post your ballot today, to give UCU negotiators the best chance fight back for all of us, and to say as loudly as possible that we cannot go on like this — we deserve more.

If you are very worried, stressed, anxious or if you just don’t feel like yourself anymore, you can make contact with your usual GP, who can refer you to support services or you can access the NHS Sheffield Helpline for Mental Health Issues at 0808 801 0440. Without registering, you can work independently on a growing number of excellent online sites for example NHS Moodzone, Mental Health Foundation and Mind. iPad Apps like Unstuck and NHS self-help suite may also prove useful to manage symptoms. If you or someone else is in immediate risk of serious harm or injury, you should call the emergency services by dialing 999.