Broken umbrella in the wind and rain

I work for one of the largest Universities in the UK which seems to think that rather than delivering world class teaching and research, its main purposes are to keep its staff on their toes with constant restructuring and to run a budget surplus (I’ll come to this later).

This restructuring inevitably leads to uncertainty for staff and usually involves recruitment freezes as well as voluntary redundancy measures. Despite often being worried about the security of their own roles, staff take on extra work to fill in resourcing gaps while partial or total recruitment freezes are in place and all the while, market competition for that crucial fee income places ever higher demands on those over-worked employees.

Like many large corporate employers, the University’s one-size-fits-all solution is to offer a range of training to help their staff to cope. Here are just a few I found that are taking place in the next month or so:

‘Developing Personal Resilience for Change’;
‘Developing Resilience in Challenging Times’;
‘Leading People Through Change’;
‘Work Related Stress: Identification, Prevention and Management’;
‘Understanding Stress’;
At least TEN different ‘Wellbeing’ Workshops;
Weekly Mindfulness and Meditation sessions;
Weekly ‘Managing Anxiety’ sessions;
Weekly ‘Calm Your Brain’ sessions

As someone who has lived with mental health problems for a very long time, I am pleased that the University has thought about some ways that they might help people with stress etc. And as the husband of a psychologist, I know that mindfulness and meditation can really help people.

But I was in a ‘resilience’ training session recently and despite really trying to take on board what the person was saying, my overriding feeling was that this strategy is like repeatedly kicking someone in the shins and then offering them shin pads. It’s like setting fire to their home and then providing water pistols. It’s like pushing someone down a stone staircase and providing a cushion at the bottom. Someone in the session talked about working 10-12 hours a day and how she and her colleagues were struggling with that. No one should have to work those hours and the negative effects, in the short and long term, are not worth the temporary financial benefit that the University will see.

Last year, my contract was due to be extended (I’d been in the rolling budgets for years and the paperwork for the extension had even been submitted). When COVID hit, the University froze all recruitment and all contract extensions: apparently fearful of the impact on precious tuition fee income. As it turned out, the University’s finances were ok and the voluntary redundancies and recruitment freeze seems to have kept the budget surplus intact. A crazy radical thinker might wonder what the hell the point is of running a budget surplus if you don’t use it during a global pandemic.

Anyway, that was the end of my contract extension. Major worries about how we would pay the mortgage and provide for our son was at the forefront of my mind, fuelling crippling feelings of worthlessness. I had been through this during the financial crash and it was all happening again, only this time with a family to worry about as well. While feeling really hopeless I had to try to feign confidence and sell myself and after six months of stress, anxiety and uncertainty, I somehow managed it. I then had to go about learning a new job, with new people and new responsibilities and for five months I was just about managing.

Then, on the eve of some events I had been planning, it all got too much and my brain caved in. It came as a shock: even though I know my mental health issues very well after a lifetime of living with them, I kind of thought things would be ok. I ended up having to take six weeks off work and although I’m now back, I don’t feel I’m really well enough yet. I now realise that the strain of financial uncertainty, worries about my long-term employability, managing home-schooling and worrying about the pandemic had really taken its toll and what would normally be manageable work pressure became too much. Dealing with how I felt about needing time off was difficult and it’s still hard knowing that I’m not performing as well as I should be able to. I’ve been trying to remind myself that if it was a physical health issue, there would be no question, shame or feeling of failure.

This disparity between physical and mental ill-health isn’t just in my head: it is fixed into the way the University manages employee wellbeing. If employees were suffering physical injuries during their work, would the University provide plasters and paracetamol, or work out precisely what was causing the injuries and put steps in place to ensure it stopped happening? The University does ask line managers to take mental health into account and look at ways of managing issues but this, again, is a bandage over a burn when what we need are preventative measures – or at least, for the the University to stop providing the kindling.

I’m acutely aware that many, many people are in similar and worse situations than I have been. And hey, I’m lucky: it’s going to be two years before my current contract is up and if I want to, next week I can book myself onto another resilience training session.

Feature photo by Misael Silvera on Unsplash

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SoapBoxJury
Star Wars and Socialism. Troll me at your peril. He/him - also cool with they/them.
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