Workplace Stress

So, Northampton, why are we striking over the Four Fights of pay, equality, workload and casualisation? UCU explains here:

The Four Fights dispute is about demanding fair treatment for staff across the sector and a comprehensive remedy for the way in which your working conditions have been undermined over the past decade.  

The combination of pay erosion, unmanageable workloads and the widespread use of insecure contracts has undermined professionalism and made the working environment more stressful for staff.  

The average working week in higher education is now above 50 hours, with 29% of academics averaging more than 55 hours. A UCU survey conducted in December 2020 saw 78% of respondents reporting an increased workload during the pandemic. 

The pay gap between Black and white staff is 17%. The disability pay gap is 9%. The mean gender pay gap is 15.1% and at the current rate of change it will not be closed for another 22 years. 

Finally, workload, pay inequality and casualisation are all directly interrelated and compound one another. The recent UCU workload survey found that women, BAME and disabled staff were all disproportionately likely to report that their workload had increased, and the same groups are also disproportionately likely to be on casualised rather than permanent contracts.
We are burned out. Image by Maria Lupan on Unsplash.

But it’s easy to read these stats and think “oh, that’s a shame” and yet not really link it to the real lived experience of people who perhaps teach you, or you work alongside. Today we thought we’d share the stories of four of your colleagues and teachers, who experience high levels of stress due to unmanageable workloads, insecure job contracts and more. We’ll let them speak for themselves…

I like to think I’m pretty resilient but it’s starting to dawn on me that when I’m at home and the thought that I have ‘forgotten’ something catches me many, many times in the evening, the weekend and even in the middle of the night, that’s workplace stress. Mostly, I try and get it done there and then to give me peace of mind, or at least add it to my perpetual to do list. It started to happen so often that I eventually just gave in to it, adding between 2-6 hours to my day, every day. I call it my second shift. It’s pushed out any sense of having a meaningful work/life balance.

Do I feel stressed? Not particularly – I’ve now built my life around getting work done and I’m just about avoiding the dreaded stress, but I know if I were to work to my hours and contract that my defender against stress (the additional work I do) would no longer support me and I think my view of myself as resilient wouldn’t last so long. The workload allocation does not represent what I do, and until it does people like me will always kid ourselves that our hard work is resilience. It isn’t. It’s our response to impending stress. This must change. If I’m optimistic, I imagine a future where I work hard and am as efficient in my actual job as I can be, and that when something springs to my mind at home it is an idea that I know will benefit my students – I start working on it straight away, yes in my own time, because I love my job and the people I teach, and because I want to inspire and support a generation who know from example that work doesn’t have to be stressful, it can be rewarding and enriching and satisfying.

I am striking because I stand by the values I teach my students and live by example. I know I am not alone in the pressures I experienced this year with workload, working 12 hour days and weekends to catch up with the basics and still feeling that I cannot support my students enough who have also been in a state of crisis. The goose analogy in ‘Seven habits of highly effective people’ explains that the goose that produces golden eggs can no longer be productive when stretched beyond capacity. Management have got a duty of care towards their workers.

Having lost several members of our team the majority of whom were not replaced, meant that time, energy and resources are limited. I am fighting for my students and the young people of this country to have a future. Quality education cannot come from an exhausted, demoralised workforce. People that care are needed in education and these people will no longer wish to apply for these jobs if they cannot be trusted or supported in doing their jobs. Fair pay, hours and treatment for all.

It’s undoubtedly the case that pay and working conditions have deteriorated across the sector in recent years. Nationally, growing casualisation, threats to pensions and the gender and ethnic pay gaps are making HE a less attractive place to work, especially for women and black people.

Locally, the major issue facing me and my colleagues is workload: we are exhausted and many of us are working evenings and weekends just to keep up. Apart from the Covid pandemic, constant restructure and technological change, semesterisation soon after the move to Waterside, and a spate of recent redundancies have made the job much more difficult and stressful. Many teams like mine are delivering new programmes with fewer staff and this is negatively impacting mental health. Too much of what we do is not even counted in the workload model. I see strike action as a way of forcing managers to take the workload issue seriously and make meaningful changes that properly acknowledge and give adequate time to the valuable work we as academic staff do. 

I am striking because staff workloads have become the biggest issue in HE in Britain. Year on year the hours allocated in workload models to certain tasks are reduced, so that individuals can be asked to take on more work. It has become the norm for staff to work at maximum workload in hours, so there is no contingency for sick leave, crisis management, unanticipated changes, etc etc. Staff are not lazy or inefficient; we are being asked to do the impossible, and feel like failures for not being able to.

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