Working Wounded: More Demands and Less Resource

Staff across the Higher Education sector have been asked to do more with less, even before the impact of COVID-19. We are often reminded that recruitment of students is increasingly competitive; that fees haven’t increased with inflation (although they tripled in 2012 and then rose with inflation until 2017); and, less often, the context of consecutive government funding cuts might emerge as the real cause of our financial difficulties. It is true that the pool of 18 year olds declined up until 2019, but it is now increasing again. While demands and workloads continue to increase, pay rises and promotions are in jeopardy, and budget cuts and recruitment freezes threaten to become the norm.

This brief summary is reminiscent of one definition of stress as a situation that overwhelms our resources.* The antidote to feelings of isolation and overwhelm is safety, connection to others, the ability to emotionally self-regulate through regaining a sense of mastery, and a wider perspective. Conversely, the austerity narrative, which tries to justify cuts to public spending, is founded on the notion of individualism: the illusion that we are worker robots who labour and consume without the need for community, a sense of collective identity, belonging, meaning or purpose. To the extent that we have all internalised the story used to justify this economic model, we are susceptible to self-blame, and/or criticise others, for our inevitable responses to being overworked.

Job demands, control and change are all central aspects of the Health and Safety Executive’s stress management tool. We asked the College’s new Health and Safety Director to work with us some months ago to use this tool to relieve the stress our colleagues endure at RHUL. 

The impact of the current crisis on the mental health of academic colleagues is explored in an article published by the Chronicle for Higher Education. The article argues that the sane response to turbulence of this magnitude is not increased productivity. The author maintains that establishing safety and security are necessary before the mental shift needed to continue to work can occur. If you would like to join a group to look at the opportunities to work together for the best interests, health and well-being of all of us as part of the Workloads and Stress Working Group, please do get in touch via the branch e-mail (rhulucu2018 at gmail.com).

Posted on behalf of the RHUL-UCU Workloads and Stress Working Group.

* Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn explores the development of our understanding of stress since the term was first coined, and points to ways to manage it, in Full Catastrophe Living

What Is A Reasonable Workload For All Staff?

This post contains the text of the RHUL UCU Reasonable Workload Fact Sheet produced for all staff, to ensure that it is easily available to all. The factsheet is available for download from the link above. 

Maximum Working Hours

A full-time contract at RHUL is based upon a 35-hour week. If you are not full-time try to adapt these guidelines on a pro rata basis.

You would expect to work for 260 days in a year (this number was arrived at in legal cases deciding the appropriate rate of salary deductions that a university employer may make if staff go on strike) and contractually to work seven hours a day. This provides a maximum number of hours (before holidays, which are discussed below) of 1820. On a standard full-time contract, these hours cover your preparation, teaching, marking and feedback, research, scholarship administration, meetings, training, pastoral care.

Thanks to EU law, which has yet to be repealed, workers whose shift is six hours or more are entitled to a 20 minute uninterrupted break within that shift; there should be 11 hours between the finish and start of your working day; and 48 hours is the legal maximum (unless people sign an opt out). The increased use of screens means it is important to take regular screen break. UK Display Screen Equipment Regulations recommend at least five minutes every hour is taken away from a screen.

Usual Working Patterns

The College was suggesting to staff that there were four solutions to the challenge of social distancing on campus. These were:

  1. The use of temporary teaching, office and meeting spaces, such as porta-cabins;
  2.  Teaching on Saturdays;
  3. Teaching until 7pm at night
  4. Adding additional week(s) to the timetable.

In response to each of these:

  1. Porta-cabins may be acceptable if they allow for disabled access and allow users to control temperature adequately (they are often hot in summer and cold in winter). Adequate entry and egress of socially distanced users must also be assured;
  2. Our employment contracts state that Saturday working is exceptional, by mutual agreement and may attract overtime payments or time off in lieu.
  3. Historically RHUL core hours have been 9-5, though many of us have allowed custom and practice to extend this to 6pm. The Athena Swan accreditation recommends core hours of 10-4 to maximise retention of staff with child care duties. No staff should be expected to stay teaching until 7pm and then travel home. Extending the working day affects those with
    caring responsibilities and those who are disabled.
  4. Adding extra weeks may seem like a low-cost option to the College but it may have significant equalities and absence consequences. For example, extending the number of teaching weeks is likely to affect those with caring responsibilities (as their usual cover arrangements may not be available) and those who are disabled may not be able to work intensively for the additional weeks It will also impact on staff members’ research and scholarship commitments, breaching custom and practice.

Holidays

Staff on academic contracts have 41 days of different sorts of leave a year: 27 days of annual leave, 8 bank holidays, 6 days of College closure. In 2020 all staff were granted an additional closure day to reflect the efforts made by colleagues in the early days of this crisis. Those who had prior work
commitments on that date were advised to take another day off.

If we deduct the number of days’ leave in 2019/20 we find staff with a full-time contract were due to work for 218 days, meaning there were 1526 hours available for work (as opposed to the 260 days and 1820 hours before allowing for leave). On a standard full-time contract, these hours cover your
preparation, teaching, marking and feedback, research, scholarship administration, meetings, training, pastoral care.

It is important to take holidays, to spend time with friends and family and to recharge after demanding work. One can returned energised inspired and with higher productivity. But if your summer will be spent undertaking unexpected volumes and types of work to prepare for next year then you may be unable to use all of your entitlement. Your holiday is valuable – it is part of your remuneration, so don’t feel you must sacrifice it. You are entitled to carry forward 8 days of holiday if you have been unable to take this leave during the year. If you have more leave than this accrued
please talk to your line manager now.

Staff may not be expected to exceed this weekly hours’ capacity, and staff should not be expected to drop their annual leave. Continue reading “What Is A Reasonable Workload For All Staff?”

Helping UCU Members Navigate Their Workloads in 2020

The COVID-19 crisis represents a huge challenge for RHUL, a challenge for which the Senior Management Team (SMT) have developed a response. The response is based upon revising our degree programmes at speed, so that the College can offer on-line learning with face-to-face elements if and when these are “feasible”. This feasibility is very unclear, not just because of the nature of a pandemic; it is unclear because the SMT are not sharing the details of their proposals with staff.

Cancelling sabbatical leave generates greater teaching capacity but not enough to compensate for the number of fixed-term, visiting and hourly paid staff who are imminently leaving this institution. Precarious staff, on whatever type of contract, make a huge contribution to the student experience and our research portfolio. They are often young and committed staff, and are disproportionately Black and female. This shows inconsistency between the SMT’s pronouncements about the Black Lives Matter movement and statements about our history as a women’s university. In 2015 McKinsey published a report which demonstrated that diversity and performance were positively correlated in organisations across the globe. Retaining our casuals is the right thing to do and will benefit organisational performance. The College has made no statement about losing these staff. They have also not communicated with these staff; many have told UCU they are isolated and frightened for their future.

So, for 2020 we are reconfiguring our programmes to a College template; the template requires a huge amount of staff involvement to “lead students through their journey,” and the VP for Education tells us they may well have higher contact time than previously. This work on redesign, this incorporation of technology, this extra amount of contact time, all needs a huge amount of staff resource. As our valued casual colleagues are let go, this resource is going to come from permanent staff. This demands far more time than is covered by squeezing research hours and cancelling 90 sabbaticals.

UCU surveys regularly report that education workers work the longest hours of any industry. As far back as 2011/12 the Labour Force Survey found education workers in the UK took the highest number of days off work due to stress-related illness. UCU surveys have consistently shown that university workers’ working hours included roughly two days’ unpaid overtime a week (UCU website, 11/6/2020). In 2016 85% respondents from RHUL reported that their workload had increased over the last three years. Reducing workloads was one of the issues underpinning the Four Fights claim and industrial dispute of 2020, a dispute which is unresolved. The proposals of the SMT implicitly demand that permanent staff increase their hours.

Whilst Professional Services staff may not have the competing demands of teaching and research to contend with, unmanageable workloads are nevertheless common. Many Professional Services staff will be expected to support the proposed changes to teaching, which will inevitably cause heavier workloads. It is also common that when members of staff leave Professional Services they are not replaced; this happened even before COVID-19, as it is assumed that workloads will be ‘absorbed.’ In practice, this means that colleagues who are already overstretched are left to try to cover work which isn’t in their remit or job description, and for which they were given no official handover.

Staff have demonstrated how ready and willing they are to work longer and harder at times of need, but this effort cannot be sustained over an indefinite period and it MUST be voluntary effort. It will have a particularly damaging effect on staff with other commitments, for example those caring for relatives, and it may be particularly bad for junior staff developing their research profile. RHUL-UCU is available to discuss this response with the SMT. But so far we have merely received information, and we have not been invited to discussions and/or negotiations.

Following a request from members at the open meeting of 10th June 2020, the UCU branch at Royal Holloway has put together some basic information for members should they find themselves discussing workload with their line managers and colleagues. The first thing to consider is whether you have a copy of your contract. The fact sheet for members is based upon a standard academic contract at RHUL (as shown on the College intranet in June 2020). There is also a section included for Professional Service Staff. You may also want to share this information with your students, who are often dismayed to hear how long and how hard university workers toil for what are (usually) modest salaries.

You can download the RHUL UCU Reasonable Workload Fact Sheet here. Every member will receive this fact sheet by email.

Why Are We Highlighting Occupational Stress?

Many of the concerns we are raising reflect our concerns about existing levels of occupational stress borne by university workers. We believe these proposals will seriously exacerbate occupational stress. Stress at work is a serious issue throughout the UK. Work-related stress has been the subject of a great deal of research and activity by the Health and Safety Executive, the non-governmental body which provides advice on safety at work, inspects workplaces and monitors occupational accidents and ill health.

Work-related stress can be measured by asking questions about the following aspects of a job: control, demands, role, relationships, support and change. When members of staff become stressed or more stressed they should discuss this with their line manager. If this is not possible or does not lead to a change in their circumstances at work, then the stress can manifest in the form of a deterioration of their physical or mental health. Physical symptoms might include stomach problems, headaches, raised blood pressure, fatigue or insomnia; mental health symptoms could include depression, anxiety or irritability. The College has a policy of taking mental health problems as seriously as physical health conditions, so do not be embarrassed to tell your line manager you are stressed.

The proposals that have been shared by the SMT suggest staff will experience significant change, less control, a heavier load, no additional support, broken relationships as colleagues leave, and a change in role for those who must pause their research.

Senior management plans do not account for stress-related leave.

Staff who need to take time off due to stress will often ask their GP to focus on physical ailments rather than stress, as stigma remains attached to mental health ailments including stress. If we observe a rise in occupational sick leave, then the work of absent staff will fall to those staff still at work. This will increase workloads further.

Posted on behalf of members of the RHUL-UCU Branch Committee

Working Wounded – More Demands, Less Resource

Staff across the Higher Education sector have been repeatedly asked to do more with less, even before the impact of Coronavirus. We are often reminded that recruitment of students is increasingly competitive, that demographics are against us and that fees haven’t increased in real terms. (1) Sometimes blame is attributed to consecutive governments who demand ever more data from performance metrics. With selective references to the larger economic context, the message is often repeated: in this climate of uncertainty (exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic), we can’t expect better conditions, pay rises or promotions. We can expect budget cuts and recruitment freezes, while demands and workloads continue to increase beyond human capacity. Despite all this, the now postponed College Strategy Green Paper called for more building and more expansion.

This brief summary of our experience is reminiscent of one definition of stress as a situation that overwhelms our resources. (2) The antidote to feelings of isolation and of being overwhelmed, is establishing a felt sense of safety, connection to others, the ability to emotionally self-regulate through re-gaining a wider perspective. Contrarily, the austerity narrative, which has tried to justify cuts to public spending, is founded on the notion of individualism, prevalent since 1979: the illusion that we are little worker robots who labour and consume without the need for a sense of collective identity, who do not belong to a community, meaning or purpose. To the extent that we have all internalised the story underpinning this economic model, we are susceptible to self-blame, and/or to criticise others, for our sense of being overworked. For some, the response to heavy workloads will look like anger and conflict, for others it might take the form of more mistakes, withdrawal or despondency. For many of us, excessive and prolonged stress can manifest also in the form of physical symptoms (strokes, hypertension, auto-immune conditions, digestive disorders to name a few). Economic models that increase the unequal distribution of wealth, in which public sectors are routinely underfunded and the ‘market’ is trusted to run healthcare and education, are also connected to poor mental health. (3)

Universities were once places of at least partial refuge from the whims of ideological governments. Unfortunately, some university managements have internalised the worst practices of austerity, and just when the national government announced a lifting of austerity, some university managements have doubled-down on bad practices. This occurred before COVID-19 was even known, but it has become the excuse for yet further tightening of the screws.

A collective, unionised response to unmanageable workloads can untangle us from the web of self-blame and individualisation and simultaneously can strengthen trade unions’ ability to negotiate with senior management to reduce the volume of work to a rate which is feasible and not harmful for our mental and physical wellbeing. To this end the three recognised trade unions at Royal Holloway have produced a staff survey which looks at colleagues’ experiences during the pandemic, which we hope to distribute in the next few days.

The impact of the current crisis on the mental health of academic colleagues is explored in a recent article published by the Chronicle for Higher Education. The article argues that the sane response to turbulence of this magnitude is not increased productivity. The author maintains that colleagues need time to look after their mental wellbeing, to adjust to the ‘new normal’ before work can feasibly be undertaken under the new circumstances. Needless to say, workloads are part of our on-going dispute, and our local efforts run alongside a national UCU campaign. The survey we are running locally will help us explore the physical and mental health challenges arising from working during the pandemic, and identify the concerns and priorities of College staff.

Although our strike action finished in March, all members of UCU were asked to observe Action Short of a Strike (ASoS) until April 28th. This involved working to contract, and ceasing to undertake additional, unpaid work. Observing ASoS as a collective allowed us to limit what we did in the knowledge our fellow members were doing the same – this went some way to protecting us in the face of a massive rise in work demand, at a time of change over which we have no control. Job demands, control and change are all central aspects of the Health and Safety Executive’s stress management tool. We asked the College’s new Health and Safety Director to work with local UCU representatives some months ago to use this tool to relieve the stress our colleagues endure at RHUL. We believe the problem is deep seated and cannot be addressed by putting all staff on arbitrary workload models. Our Branch reps are ready to start this task as soon as possible.

We aren’t mental health professionals, and whilst we can signpost, we don’t have the expertise to help with serious issues. UCU directs members to a charity for education workers, which offers support via counselling or financial support. Locally, you may wish to join other UCU members who sit in meditation led by Sofia on Microsoft teams.

We welcome support and suggestions from any members interested in joining our working party looking at workloads and stress. You can get in touch with us at our usual email address, rhulucu2018 at gmail.com. We hope to be able to collate responses to coordinate a branch level effort to address this most pressing issue as best we can with the resources at our disposal.

Posted on behalf of the RHUL-UCU Workloads and Stress Working Group

 

(1) It is true that the pool of Home 18 year olds declined up until 2019, but it is now increasing again; see ‘Demand for Higher Education to 2030’, HEPI. Fees tripled in 2012 and then rose with inflation until 2017.

(2) Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn explores the development of our understanding of stress since the term was first coined, and points to ways to manage it, in Full Catastrophe Living (2013).

(3) See for example The Spirit Level, 2009, or The Inner Level, 2018, both by Wilkinson and Pickett. The British Psychological Society has critiqued approaches to diagnosing mental illness “that are based on identifying problems as located within individuals. This misses the relational context of problems and the undeniable social causation of many such problems.