Climbing out of the rabbit hole and building well-being


Australian universities have been impacted by COVID-19 and the ensuing increased stress and anxiety has highlighted the importance of employee mental health and well-being. Prior to the pandemic there was clear evidence that universities were high pressure working environments with increasing demands for productivity coupled with resource constraints.

Academics have cumulative metrics for teaching performance, research funding, outputs and impact. Our role and work demands are vast (e.g., trimester teaching, more offshore deliveries) and becoming more complex, with new pedagogical methods changing the concept of what is done in the classroom versus what is done off-campus (i.e., blended learning approaches, virtual classrooms). This pressure is escalating due to the pandemic. It’s not just the rapid acceleration of trends and technology that have transformed our profession.

We’re also doing our best to stoically support our students, colleagues, family and friends. At the same time, we’re worried and uncertain about our livelihood and the long-term consequences on our careers.

Before COVID, many teaching and research academics were increasingly having to put their research on hold. They were doing this so that they could focus on how to best deliver, teach, engage and support multiple classes to (in many instances) hundreds of students, in order to provide them with a quality education. This trend has only intensified with COVID as course material and assessments have been urgently reworked and moved to online teaching platforms so to minimise disruption to students’ academic success. But as eloquently expressed by Andrea MacLeod research outputs are essential to our career success and promotion, so many of us are working increasingly long hours to try to accommodate what we feel we need to achieve to remain visible and productive in our areas, particularly when we have ongoing research student and project demands.

The unrealistic expectations and emotional labour of doing all of this is not sustainable.

We also take on the concern of our peers and for the increasingly anxious students who we teach. As a teaching and research academic within an aviation faculty, I have been approached by a growing number of students in tears as they are genuinely fearful of how they can cope without casual work to support their studies. They are also fearful of what will happen as they graduate into an industry decimated by the pandemic, with forecasts that it may take 2-3 years for the aviation industry to recover. These fears are shared by students in other industries. Despite our growing teaching demands, it’s vital that we take care of our own mental, physical and emotional health so that we can continue to support and protect the health and well-being of our students and others.

This is a difficult time for our sector particularly in terms of financial concerns and job security. We need to work in healthy and thriving teams and workplaces. To do so, we need to advocate for change so that we build a culture that is less adversarial and competitive, more collegial and inclusive. Prior to COVID, there was a clear cause for concern for the mental health of academics, as international and national research revealed increased job demands, and the psychosocial hazards of reduced control, and difficulties with roles and relationships. We need supportive relationships with colleagues and supervisors so that people feel valued and recognised. As managers play a pivotal role in employees’ experiences it’s important to keep mental health and well-being on their agenda, and for it to be monitored.

Universities are ideally placed to promote public health approaches as they provide for a large population of both staff and students. My colleagues and I designed a project on digital communication and well-being in 2017-18 as we were concerned about mental health within universities. Now, more than ever, it’s vital for university managers to take a central and proactive role to develop targeted interventions that promote healthier and safer environments. For example, how can we reduce digital communication and work challenges so that we can foster high performing teams and relationships?

To help achieve this, we would invite you to answer questions about your work in a 20-30 minute survey (LINK BELOW). Our questions include COVID-related issues as well as digital work, email load, work engagement, work-home conflict, fatigue, recovery, and your sleep quality and quantity so that we can learn about your experiences at work and its impact on your well-being.

We know that you are very busy at this time but hope that you can complete our survey so that we can hear your voice and gather evidence to invest in the collective well-being of all university staff. Please use the link below to access the survey and to share it with your academic and professional colleagues (whether casual, fixed-term or tenured) who work in the Australian university sector.

Author Bio: Silvia Pignata is a senior lecturer in the STEM unit and a member of the Centre for Workplace Excellence at the University of South Australia