I’ll tell you what I’m really sick of right now: my university telling me that they understand change is hard for their staff. I’m an academic in an Australian university and I’ve chosen to publish this anonymously for reasons that should be obvious.
This post is a rant. It’s not a reasoned tracing of the whys and wherefores about how higher education got here. Other people have written about that in depressing detail already.
At many institutions, university leaders have announced big cuts and job losses. Then they go on about how they know change is difficult for staff. They proceed to offer a suite of empathy-adjacent tools and apps that are meant to help their people deal with the meat-grinder dynamics of higher education since 2020.
Newsflash: Change isn’t really that hard. If they had announced that massive changes would affect us all, and that these changes would result in bountiful resources, new opportunities for career building, and investment in me as a valuable staff member, I would be STOKED. Bring it on! I would have no problems adjusting to this change scenario at all. Zero. Zip. Nada.
The problem isn’t that change is hard. The problem is that university leaders aren’t really talking about any old change. They’re talking about awful change: budget cuts, redundancies and sackings, discontinuations and non-renewals. They’re talking about taking things away and diminishing the environment around you (yet expecting you to do the same – if not more – of the same work). They’re taking actions that push colleagues out and affect livelihoods and career paths.
It’s like our university leaders are shoving us into a room where we’ll be whacked with sticks, then being concerned that we’re reluctant, angry, or distressed about going into that room. I can imagine the executives on a zoom call saying, “Hmm, the staff are very upset about going into Whacking Room #4. Maybe we need to be seen to be doing the right thing. Can we provide them with an app for ‘How to be resilient when being whacked with sticks’?”.
And here we move onto one of the most infuriating things about all the euphemistic change rhetoric that’s saturating higher education right now: wellbeing apps and newsletters. These have been triggering an increasing fury of emotions as things have worsened (and will worsen still). Twitter accounts like @lifeadvicebot capture beautifully the inanity of the individualised ‘solutions’ to systemic problems.
Are you struggling with the impact of workplace precarity? Consider clean eating #YOLO
— neoliberal life advice (@lifeadvicebot) July 6, 2021
Feel better about workplace precarity by scrapbooking #lifegoals
— neoliberal life advice (@lifeadvicebot) June 23, 2021
University leaders strategise, often with external consultants, a whole suite of destructive changes to our workplaces that are all about the bottom-line. These changes create an environment that’s toxic with stress and anger. Morale becomes abysmal.
They then slather the salve of generic apps and tools on resulting issues in wellbeing and mental health. The ‘maintain your wellbeing’ dross targets individuals as the ones who need to fix themselves. This is tone-deaf and offensive as well as being expensive.
We’ve heard many stories from colleagues about the onslaught of wellbeing initiatives and awkward or callous leadership moments. The Campus Morning Mail focused on a university wellbeing newsletter that asked “is now the time to make life-changing decisions?” on the heels of confirming over 200 voluntary redundancies. Another university was sacking its staff, crying very poor, then giving all faculty a pack with a face-mask and branded sanitiser.
Another Australian academic had many thoughts to share on this topic:
“Health, safety and wellbeing at my university is dominated by psychological frameworks for “mental wellbeing” that ignore other ways of thinking about health and wellbeing (like cultural or structural approaches). The close relationship between wellbeing and health as a psychological practice (rather than also a cultural, social, political or structural one) and HR’s goals (our alignment to the university’s culture as a means of meeting ever-changing productivity targets) feels like a conflict of interest. I am not sure that our wellbeing neatly aligns with university productivity nor should it be, especially when job losses over the last decades and intensifying work demands inherently decrease wellbeing. Although the strategic planning that guides wellbeing work at the university stresses that this is the work of leaders just as much as everyone else, leadership rarely demonstrates empathy or an understanding of academic work in Australia. We could cross off any reference to the university in strategic wellbeing documents and add in “insurance company” or “digital marketing company” instead, and nothing would need to be changed in plans and documents; context is ignored. University staff wellbeing is of course going to be impacted by changing government funding, global demands for publications that boost metrics, centralisation and digitalisation of work processes, decreases in ongoing or tenured positions, and public distrust of academics and universities. Rarely do wellbeing initiatives or resources actively engage with this reality for professional and academic staff.
When strategies are suggested in meetings and presentations, they resemble the simple advice of white, middle-class mental health Instagram or TikTok accounts, merely reminding us to take breaks, connect with others or manage work/life balance. The people encouraging these practices seem to have little experience in safely and critically facilitating these processes and do not understand how they might be harmful for some people. For example, being encouraged right in the middle of a meeting to practice mindfulness by closing our eyes and feeling into our bodies and senses is not emotionally, culturally or mentally appropriate for all people, especially without some points about managing safety. Some contemplative practices like meditation can stir up flashbacks for people living with trauma or reinforce frustration and distrust towards psychological interventions, especially for those with a history of discrimination or coercion in the mental health care system. Questions and critique of moments like this are met with defensive or wishy-washy responses that answer nothing.
Presentations, resources and strategies blur different experiences of mental health challenges, workplace stress, mental illness, psychiatric disorders, mental wellbeing, and emotional distress into one concept. This means that the goals are unclear or too broad to be useful: preventing suicide? decreasing mental health related leave? better managing everyday stress? Better supporting colleagues living with long-term mental ill-health or other disabilities or chronic illness is ignored, just as leadership on managing changing work demands or supporting each other to enact boundaries at work are ignored. The university, like many others, connects with major healthcare companies to provide “services”, but there is no detail about what these relationships entail or why a university that teaches health science, health communication, critical approaches to public health, and other care and wellbeing related disciplines needs outside “expertise” to offer short-term interventions with unknown practitioners. Outsourcing the issues places responsibility onto colleagues who end up taking up and paying for their own care practices. I imagine that If I took my university to the GP to get a Mental Health Care Plan, no doubt it would be told it is living with dysthymia – low mood, hopelessness, low energy – symptoms that emerged long before the pandemic.”
A colleague at a South East Asian university flagged that their staff were invited to a seminar on how to avoid “online burnout” and to take time away from the screen in the same week the university announced that they were going back to online teaching. Meanwhile, in Australia, another university that declared it didn’t have enough money to pay staff paid for a communications consultant for one of their senior leaders after this person was heavily criticised for tone-deaf, empathy-lacking and badly-timed emails. A frustrated anger infuses many of our colleagues in higher education. Australian DECRA scholar Hannah McCann tweeted:
Can universities please stop kidding themselves that the underfunded uni psych services, dodgy corporate wellbeing programs, and videos encouraging staff to “take care of yourselves” do anything to ameliorate the emotional toll of restructures and redundancies
— Hannah McCann (@binarythis) July 16, 2021
Seeing the call-out for examples, many colleagues shuddered and said they’d immediately deleted or repressed these wellbeing overtures from their organisations. These initiatives appeared to cause more rage than calm.
What institutional leaders need to recognise when they shoehorn wellbeing into dire situations is that there is no ‘fix’ for that kind of awful change. The very least they can do is to be honest, non-euphemistic, and human.