So I’m getting ready to get up after a largely sleepless night spent ruminating, a constant cycle of never-ending negative thoughts, and which, over the past couple of years, has become centred around my job. I’ve alluded to this in previous posts, talked a little about the stress (actual and perceived) that my job in Higher Education entails. Over this time, I’ve come to dread getting up in the mornings. Increasingly my brain tells me: I can’t do this. I really can’t do this anymore. I’ve ignored the voice, because I’m worried that going off sick will be a terrible thing in terms of ‘abandoning’ my students, of leaving my colleagues to do my work. Of being a ‘bad’ employee – of my deteriorating mental health being a ‘black mark’ against my career. Of being thought weak and incapable. My suffering is less important, or so I feel, than allowing myself to be a ‘good’ employee and colleague, a ‘good’ lecturer. So what has actually brought me – and so many others, because there are so, so many others – to this point? Work benefits us, of course, if only to provide us with the income we need to sustain ourselves; it can give us a sense of wellbeing and purpose in our lives, but it can harm us too, especially if we are vulnerable, prone to the effects of ‘bad’ stress. Work in these days of ‘do more, be more, get more’, can harm us. And frequently does.
Modern Western capitalist culture is driving (has driven) us inexorably to poor work-life balances, with increasing levels of bad stress (because not all stress is bad, and a little stress has been shown to be a good thing because it stops us becoming complacent) and anxiety becoming the new normal. Even those without underlying mental health issues (in my experience, and from talking to colleagues, this is certainly true in HE institutions) are finding it detrimental to their wellbeing. For those of us who do have those issues, it can become impossible to cope, which was what happened to me. Not taking proper lunch breaks (eating at your desk while catching up with yet more apparently pointless admin), not even taking toilet breaks because of being ‘too busy’! Working more hours than you’re contracted for to ‘get the job done’, despite having a workload plan that allegedly maps out our work to that allotted time, has become a regular thing. People who ‘work hard’ or who are ‘very busy’ are held up as shining examples to the rest of us, who may feel shame for not doing the same. But ‘working hard’ no longer seems to mean what it once did, which is doing the job you’ve been contracted to do, in the hours you’re paid for. Now it means being ‘on’ 24/7, feeling obliged to check emails at godforsaken times of the day and night, at weekends, on holiday, constantly proving yourself, and sacrificing oneself on the altar of ‘professionalism’. Working those hours, essentially, for free.
My experience is of course in HE institutions (and I guess some are more guilty of this than others). Students have become cash cows, and we strive to give them a great ‘student experience’, a term that’s bandied about, although what that means is never really explained to us who are supposed to provide it. We even have Deans of Student Experience, a whole new level of management, some of whom may not see an actual student for days on end (cynical but…). Anyway, for me a good student experience means being part of a great course with experienced, engaged lecturers who are passionate about their subjects; along with support for health and other necessary issues such as finances and housing. Is that simplistic? Well yes, maybe it is. But it’s how I feel.
Of course this is all a result of the increased marketization and monetisation of HE, along with more and more TEF-driven government-driven, ultimately (and not just in my view) pointless bureaucracy to ‘prove’ we’re doing our jobs, when we should be actually doing them: Helping students, supporting them through their studies. Allowing them to be educated, which is what they, and we, are there for.
The pressure’s not just on us, but on young people, who are being told: ‘Do a degree, despite your instincts telling you it’s not for you, despite the debt you’ll incur. You’ll never amount to anything if you don’t do a degree.’ This, and the educational experiences that come before – the SATs process that begins at five years old, exam-driven high-pressured GCSE’s and A-Levels – are factors that lead to increasingly stressed out, anxiety-ridden young people, many of whom have to work throughout the course of their degrees because they can’t afford not to. A generation that needs support more than ever, when in some universities, student support is being cut to the bone, which is not only kind of heart-breaking, but in some cases, has led to loss of life. And yes, I’m angry about it. And another factor of cutting jobs, of course, means there’s more work for fewer staff, and the cycle continues, and if we complain we’re being unprofessional.
That was a long side-note, I’m aware, almost another post in itself, but it’s all contributed to the way I’ve been feeling, to my feeling that despite what we do – working harder, trying harder – it’s all become increasingly impossible to keep up with. And I’ve felt a sense of increasing futility.
So work and working towards work has become increasingly unhealthy, with increasingly damaging consequences, the toll on mental and physical health becoming more apparent. And you just have to Google ‘is modern work harmful?’ and you’ll find loads of articles backing this up. In fact the evidence is scary. To back myself up a little, this 2016 article by Anna Coote in the Guardian discusses the fetishisation of work: ‘The fetishisation of work is making us miserable. Let’s learn to live again’ is one of many I’ve read through.
Still, despite evidence, someone reading this may think – stop ranting, this is just how it is. We have to accept it. But why do we? Maybe I’m just idealistic – I’ve been accused of it before, like idealism and caring is some alien, unwanted thing – but is it idealistic to wish better, healthier futures for ourselves and others? Is it idealistic to hope that large institutions and businesses might become more mental-health aware? For example, provide training for managers which will help them to help support their staff. To provide wellbeing strategies that actually mean something. To foster atmospheres of empathy and understanding rather than being rigidly held to process and inflexible attitudes. To pay for training for mental health champions who staff can go to for support, so they can better support their students (MIND offer this training to workplaces, as an example). As a society, not just in HE, we need to look at our attitudes, to examine examine them closely. I’m not a politician, or the CEO of a big company, or any other kind of leader. I can’t legislate or be the instigator of much needed wide-ranging changes. But I can look at my own life and my own small role in the lives of others. I can begin to make the changes I need to make.
In the end, I went off sick from work for two months, having counselling, learning to meditate daily, just resting my exhausted mind. And yes, I’m stronger now, and have been back at work this week. But I’ve realised a lot of things about myself and my relationship to my job during that time. First, I’ve realised that I am not my job, and my job is just one facet of my life. That I’ve put too much pressure on myself to be perfect, to ‘prove’ myself. That things didn’t actually fall apart while I wasn’t there (of course they didn’t!). Not everything’s down to work, of course. My breakdown came from much deeper issues than that, and those things haven’t been resolved yet; maybe they never will be. But the pressure that’s heaped upon us, and that we all too often put on ourselves in order to justify our existence, exacerbated and magnified what was already there.
In The Empire Strokes back, Yoda said: “Do or do not, there is no try.” And in the context of the movie, it makes sense. But I will try, because I can’t fall apart again, and not just for my own sake either, but for that of others too.