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