Today I was on strike. I did not go to the picket line: instead, I caught up on the self-care I haven’t had time for recently. I caught up on sleep. I read a book. I phoned the doctor for an appointment. I visited the physio to address chronic back problems I get from using a computer for too many hours of the day. I spent time with my partner. We had a friend round for dinner.
I should be able to do these things when I’m not on strike. There should be parts of the day, every day (including week-days), which are for me, my family, my home. I’ve managed about 10 minutes every day to meditate, but aside from the more functional things (shopping, eating, washing-up) I’ve not managed much else for myself on weekdays. Don’t get me wrong: when I’m not working I prioritise time with family over time for myself, and I do manage more time for me at the weekend. The strike has brought home that I need more time for me.
Having been through mental ill health, I am constantly battling to prioritise life over work. I try to live the manifesto to be more kind. It’s still difficult to stop work overflowing because our roles in Universities are so flexible. That is both the joy and the curse of academia. I love that it’s varied. I love that we get opportunities that are stimulating, exciting, challenging. But I don’t love that I feel pressure to do more and more of these, and to do them really well. Across the UK higher education sector we are all struggling with excessive workloads, and that’s one of the strike issues.
The current UCU campaign talks about unsafe and excessive workloads. UCU believe we should be properly compensated for excessive workloads. Actually, I don’t want more money: I want a workload that is achievable in a regular five day 9-5 working week. I want to feel happy at work. I want to stop feeling guilty that once again I am desperately trying to finish off a job in the evening when I should have time for me and my family.
The excellent HEPI report “Pressure Vessels” by Liz Morrish highlights the problems. Mental ill health has got worse in university staff between 2009 and 2016, with rises of 50% common, and some as high as 316% (University of Warwick counselling referrals) and 424% (University of Kent occupational health referrals). The report identifies possible causes, including excessive workloads, and workload models which under-account tasks. It also identifies the audit and metric-driven culture of higher education, leading to a performance management culture. (Newsflash for senior management teams: if you take creative people and put them under lots of stress with unrealistic deadlines and impose “stretch” targets then those people stop being able to be creative.) The report also mentions precarious contracts, which is another of the reasons UCU has called a strike.
Being on strike is hard, because who gets hurt when we are on strike? Staff who are on strike? Definitely. I know that when I get back to work I will have to pick up the pieces of not having been at work for 8 days. Colleagues? Definitely. Some will be asked to cover the work of those on strike. If they’re not in a union then they might feel pressured to say yes. Students? Of course. They are missing out on part of their education – but lots of UCU branches are putting on educational events to which students are invited. The National Union of Students supports the strike: they appreciate that we are doing this to preserve quality higher education. Higher education employers? Definitely, in the long term, because our current culture is causing burn-out and eventually we will run out of talented and inspirational staff. Disputes such as this one also erode goodwill between institutions and staff, and our institutions run on our goodwill and willingness to take on additional roles and work extra hours.
So I’ll take the chance to stand up for a feasible working week, and for more security and career pathways for junior colleagues. I’ll also breathe a tiny sigh of relief that for the next eight days I can reset my own work-life balance.
(End note: thanks to Rachel Norman, who posted last year about taking care of yourself during a strike.)