July 18, 2014

Workplace disputes must be handled better and faster

We all know that bad things sometimes happen in working life. The measure of an institution is not whether any of its staff have ever behaved inappropriately towards colleagues but rather how those involved are treated when problems do arise.

According to information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the sector spent almost £30 million on legal costs and settlements of employment disputes between 2010 and 2013. This represents a catastrophic management failure.

Worryingly, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Quite apart from all the institutions that did not provide figures, there are also major invisible costs, such as all the management hours spent handling disputes, the lost productivity of those directly involved and the cost of sick leave when the stress gets to be too much. Then there is reputational damage, which occurs even when cases do not hit the headlines as word spreads quickly among academics.

As someone who was recently involved in an employment dispute with my university, what have I learned from the experience and how could universities improve their handling of employment disputes?

Universities have fine policies and procedures on respect and dignity in the workplace, but many simply ignore them in practice. The complainant is too often seen as the problem, and fair play is sacrificed to local expediency.

Since most senior academics gain positions of responsibility based on scholarly rather than managerial achievements, they may lack experience in handling these situations and may be unfamiliar with the relevant law. In these cases, processes must be overseen by human resource managers. HR staff and academics investigating a dispute must be properly trained. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service offers free online training courses in fair investigation process. This training should be mandatory.

A vital aspect of dispute resolution is to act early and firmly. It is too easy to initially dismiss claims of bullying and harassment as personality clashes, banter or even robust management style. But even relatively short delays of a week or two in acting could lead to situations escalating out of control.
To assure complainants that their concerns are being taken seriously, the timescales for investigation and action should be spelled out from the outset by HR. Formal grievance policies typically specify that procedures should be completed within a month, so informal grievances might reasonably be expected to be dealt with within two weeks.

If such a timetable is not forthcoming, complainants might consider defining their own (with reference to institutional policies) and supplying it to HR. Employment tribunal deadlines are strictly enforced, and employees may lose their legal rights if they wait until HR processes are completed – a common (and often successful) legal strategy for employers.

Another problem is that HR staff may feel powerless to influence the management of individual cases – especially those involving “REF megastars” whom institutions want to keep on side. High-level support and, perhaps, assertiveness training may be needed to deal with bombastic senior academics with local political agendas and alliances.

In all disputes, the procedures to be used should be clearly defined and their purpose made clear. Particularly inappropriate are ad hoc processes that fail to provide structure and that may allow a cavalier attitude towards evidence-gathering and transparency yet produce a written outcome with profound implications against which – worst of all – there is no opportunity to appeal. Such ad hoc procedures may be particularly dangerous in cases of bullying and harassment because complaints against serial offenders frequently result in a storm of retaliatory counter-allegations.

Throughout, it is essential that detailed records, including agreed meeting notes, are kept. In 2013, a precedent was set in a judgment by the Employment Appeal Tribunal allowing covert recording of meetings to be used in employment tribunal cases. Some universities have rushed through regulations to make the recording of HR procedures by employees a disciplinary offence. But institutions with nothing to hide may consider the opposite approach. Official recordings are easy and cheap to arrange and eliminate time-consuming and inaccurate note-taking and subsequent difficulties in agreeing minutes.

As bullying and harassment may particularly affect staff with protected characteristics such as disability, minority ethnic origin or sexual orientation, institutions should consider creating a central unit with staff expert in these issues, free from local politics. More support in disputes involving senior managers or in especially complex cases may be obtained from external bodies such as Acas, the Equality Challenge Unit or disability advocacy specialists.

Monitoring and audit are essential. A simple tick-sheet, with spaces for dates and comments, should be supplied to all parties at the start of disputes to ensure the consistent application of best practice. The master copy should ideally be held by HR, and an anonymised version would present an obvious avenue for performance audits of institutions’ dispute resolution practices – just as we audit so many other areas of modern university life.

UK universities avowedly aim for excellence in teaching and research. Let’s extend that aspiration across all areas of our work, saving money in the process and helping academics and students to thrive.

From: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/comment/opinion/workplace-disputes-must-be-handled-better-and-faster/2014523.article

July 01, 2014

Bullying in Academia

If you get it right, a career in academia offers all sorts of advantages:

- immense autonomy on how you manage your time;
- the opportunity to work on precisely the topics that stimulate you intellectually;
- the opportunity to travel to weird and wonderful places, and to work collaboratively with scholars and others from fascinating backgrounds;
- the opportunity to work with students who stretch your mind and inspire you.

Put simply, if your luck is in, you can be paid to read and talk about the things that interest you. There are, of course, many drawbacks to an academic career. The salaries are not always appealing. A recent Financial Times article called academics ‘cling ons’ – desperately trying to cling onto their middle class status as their salaries are eroded in comparison with other professions. There is also the drudgery associated with work (namely marking) and the creeping and insidious way in which bureaucrats and spreadsheets have taken over universities to the detriment of teaching, research, and ideas. In general though, it can be an enviable career.

One major drawback though, and one that is not discussed as often as it should be, is bullying. This usually takes the form of senior academics wielding power over their more junior colleagues. Most universities have state-of-the-art anti-bullying charters, but bullying still goes on. In fact, it is often hardwired into the organization and culture of universities.

The key to the whole issue is power. Usually, junior academics are in highly dependent positions. They need to stay ‘on side’ with their senior colleagues in order to remain in a job, or to progress in terms of promotion or access to resources. I can talk with some experience on this subject because I was worked in a department where bullying was rife (I am happy to say that it was not St Andrews or the University of Ulster). Some senior academics in the department had their own fiefdoms and academic staff who they saw not as colleagues, but as chattel. The University management saw the senior academics as ‘successful’ as they variously brought in money or were prominent in their research fields. So the University had little incentive to rock the boat by investigating claims of bullying. The Head of Department was weak. And, most of all, the victims of the bullying were reliant on the senior academics to stay in a job, earn promotion or avoid being ‘punished’ by teaching and administrative loads that would render them research inactive.

The bullying was abetted by a culture of secrecy in which decisions were taken among cliques. Discussion, even at Departmental meetings, was frowned upon. The bullies usually had been at the University for well over a decade and so knew everyone in the senior administration. As a result, the bullied felt that their chances of successfully taking a formal case against the bullies were slim. The bullies also had a technique of presenting themselves as the voice of the University, implying that their outlook was in accordance with that of the University. The cards were heavily stacked against the bullied.

The single biggest regret in my career (so far) is that I did not directly take on the bullies. I was not the direct victim of bullying but I saw it go on to colleagues. The psychological and self-esteem costs to the bullied were enormous. Everyone knew about it, and it was discussed in hushed tones. To my shame, I did not intervene. I too was trapped in a situation in which I wanted promotion and other ‘favours’ – crumbs that would be dropped from the table of the bullies. As I look back, I see that the bullies were incredibly vain and insecure individuals who used the bullying as a way of feeling in control. Often they were single dimension people, with little going on their lives apart from work.

There are three things that we can do about workplace bullying in universities.

Firstly, we should call bullying by its name. It is not ‘mentorship’, ‘leadership’, ‘the rules of the game’, ‘the way it is’, or ‘that’s just the way XXXX operates, you gotta go with it’. It is bullying. There are plenty of excellent mentors out there who do not resort to silly mind games and who are generous enough to encourage rather than thwart more junior colleagues.

Second, we should talk about bullying much more often. Weirdly, there is a stigma attached to being bullied. A chief aim in academia is to maximize one’s own autonomy over research agendas, time and budgets. To be seen as bullied is to be seen as being ‘a loser’ – as someone incapable of maximizing autonomy.

Thirdly, we need to think seriously about the working cultures that are being developed. Whether it is the tenure-track system in the US or the research census in the UK, we are creating and validating systems that allow powerholders to flex power over junior colleagues. Often these are deeply flawed individuals who are in positions of power not because of their people skills, but because they were good at playing the game. Universities need to seriously look at their management processes that reward managers of budgets or stewards of arcane university rules but penalize good managers of people.

Bullying often occurs at a key moment of the junior academic’s career. It is precisely the post-PhD time that they should be flourishing, pursuing their own ideas and cutting a path through innovative publication and research. Instead, bullying (whether directly towards them or indirectly occurring to others) encourages conformity, silence, obedience and a lack of creativity.

From: http://rogermacginty.com/2014/03/17/bullying-in-academia/

June 21, 2014

The useless union...

Dr Howard Fredrics, did you get a response from UCU? I am in a similar position with this union. They are not willing to lift a finger to support my case as a member. Anonymous

June 17, 2014

No comment

I have been a victim of bullying in four colleges and I have overdosed three times as a result! I am intending to highlight corporate bullying of students by staff, from tutors to management and directors by taking an overdose in the main college in 2014! I will call the press telling them something big is going to happen and I will have copies of some of my stories and why I am taking the overdose! I would rather die than allow this to continue! Sandra W_ _ _ _ _ _ _ n (manager) bullied me with help from her entire team and even though I did nothing to warrant it. She excluded me with a life time ban! Now I am going to fight back with the only way I can, by chaining my neck to a bar and taking an overdose! I hope the papers report the truth for once! Anonymous

May 29, 2014

WE TOLD YOU SO! - "Employment disputes cost sector £19m over four years" - THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG

Seventy of the UK’s universities spent a total of nearly £19 million over four years on settling employment disputes, with a lawyer warning that higher education was spending more than employers in many other sectors in defending claims.

Figures obtained by Times Higher Education under the Freedom of Information Act show that, in addition, 50 universities spent £10.4 million over four years on external lawyers’ fees to fight employment claims.

THE asked 125 UK universities how many employment disputes and tribunals they had been involved in between 2010 and 2013, and how much they had paid to settle or fight those cases. The 75 universities that provided figures on dispute numbers had been involved in a total of 1,331 disputes and 210 tribunals across the four years: an average of 4.3 disputes and 0.7 tribunal cases per institution per year.

The 70 universities that provided figures on the cost of settling claims, either before or after a tribunal hearing, had paid a total of £18.6 million: an average of £66,400 per institution per year. The average payout was £15,600 per case.

Cranfield University paid out the largest total amount over the four years: £1.44 million. It also had the fourth highest number of disputes – 52. The university declined to comment when contacted by THE.

The University of Gloucestershire paid out £1.17 million, including £707,000 in 2012 alone. A spokesman for the university said: “This was a period of restructuring. The majority of the [payments] related to contractual redundancy and pay in lieu of notice entitlements.” Three institutions were not involved in any disputes, and five paid out no compensation. The University of Oxford was involved in the largest number of disputes – 67 – but just one employment tribunal. Its total settlement payment of £210,000 was only the 29th highest. Loughborough University was involved in the most tribunal cases, 15, but paid out only £5,000 in total.

Rob Cuthbert, emeritus professor of higher education management at the University of the West of England and chair of the Improving Dispute Resolution Advisory Service for Further and Higher Education (Idras), cautioned that those institutions reporting the highest numbers might just be “the most assiduous” about classifying “disputes”.

“In particular, I would want to know more about the large institutions reporting little or no spending, which seems improbable,” he said.

THE also asked universities how much employment disputes had cost them in terms of the time of legal and human resources staff. No university was able to provide an internal breakdown, but 50 reported spending on external lawyers totalling £10.4 million. The average spending was £12,200 per case, although four institutions did not spend anything on lawyers’ fees.

The highest average cost per case – £69,200 – was incurred by Royal Holloway, University of London. Manchester Metropolitan University spent the highest total amount on lawyers: £1.84 million, amounting to £41,700 per case.

Helen Scott, executive officer of Universities HR, the professional organisation for universities’ human resources staff, said: “The level of disputes and payouts remains low compared with many other sectors. The higher education sector accounted for only 0.06 per cent of employment tribunal cases in the past four years.”

But Christopher Mordue, a partner at Pinsent Masons and head of its university employment team, said the statistics suggested that the average total cost of employment disputes within higher education was greater than in other sectors.

He noted that the average total cost per dispute – including both settlement and legal fees – was in excess of £25,000. “That looks on the high side…and is certainly much higher than the median awards made by tribunals even in discrimination cases,” he said.

He suggested this may be a result of the complexity of higher education claims – which frequently involve various categories of discrimination – and the fact that many occur while the claimant is still employed. These were often settled by the employee agreeing to resign, requiring “a higher settlement figure than would be needed simply to settle the claim in isolation”.

Mr Mordue also noted that the proportion of dispute cases in higher education that proceed to a tribunal – 16 per cent – is significantly lower than the 27 per cent figure for all tribunal cases in 2011-12: “That could indicate that universities are more risk-averse than other employers…However, it is just as likely that [it] reflects the fact that…the cost of defending the claim is often disproportionate to what is really at stake if you lose, making it more cost-effective to settle.”

But he added that there are “cases where, despite the cost, the right thing to do is to fight the claim – for example, on a point of principle, or to defend the managers involved or to avoid creating a claims culture”.

He advised universities to decide early on a fixed total of how much they were willing to spend defending claims and make a “robust assessment of the likely outcome of the case”, including how much compensation might be awarded.

He also noted that the total cost of disputes fell significantly in 2013, and he expected that trend to continue given recent changes to the tribunal system, such as the introduction of fees for claimants.
Gill Evans, emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge and chief executive of Idras, said lodging a tribunal case had previously been the standard negotiating tactic for disgruntled staff, but the new administration fee and the risk that they might become liable for costs if they lost – which was the most common outcome – no longer made it advisable.

“There is not much correlation between what the employee ‘deserves’ and what happens to them,” she said. “The ones who win and stay [employed] are the few with a lot of resilience and some supportive advice.”

From: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk

At last somebody exposed the extent of the waste. Note that the above refers only to the period between 2010 and 2013, and only to 75 universities in the UK. What would the figure be if all universities declared what happened the last ten years? What did the union ever do about it? What will the government do about it?

Suggestion: Protect from legal action all those who signed a compromise agreement and let them state openly a) the conditions under which they were victimised, and b) what they were paid for compensation.

We are truly only looking at the tip of the iceberg...

May 22, 2014

Critical sculpture of Canadian university president is removed: Because it’s ‘harassment and bullying’

From the statement by Capilano University (a public university in North Vancouver, British Columbia):

Late last week, an effigy of the University President, produced by George Rammell, was removed from campus on my direction.

The effigy has been repeatedly displayed on and off campus and online over the last year. The decision to remove the effigy was not taken lightly, but rather was the result of endeavouring to find the right balance among many competing values.

Our University is committed to the open and vigorous discourse that is essential in an academic community, the inherent value of artistic expression, and the rights to free speech and protest that all Canadians enjoy. No one wants Capilano to be a place where art is arbitrarily removed or censored.

We must also be mindful of the University’s obligations to cultivate and protect a respectful workplace in which personal harassment and bullying are prohibited. These obligations are reflected in our employment policies, as well as legislation. Our policies are intended to protect the interests of all individuals in our community — including our president, as well as our faculty and all others.

I am satisfied that recently the effigy has been used in a manner amounting to workplace harassment of an individual employee, intended to belittle and humiliate the President. This led me, as Board Chair, to take action.

I understand that the University’s Administration has offered to give Mr. Rammell the effigy. The condition attached to this is that it not be returned to campus, and I fully support that position.
Inside Higher Ed has more:

At British Columbia’s Capilano University, the administration seized a sculpture [titled Blathering On in Krisendom] caricaturing the university president on the grounds that it constituted “harassment” of President Kris Bulcroft.

The Capilano instructor who created the sculpture, George Rammell, said that the artwork, which depicts Bulcroft and her poodle as ventriloquist dolls wrapped in an American flag, was removed from the university’s studio art building without his knowledge on the night of May 7….

President Bulcroft has come under heavy criticism for her decision last year to cut several programs, including the studio arts program, for which Rammell teaches, and textile arts. British Columbia’s Supreme Court ruled in April that the Capilano administration had acted contrary to the province’s University Act in making the cuts to courses and programs without seeking the advice of the Capilano Senate. The university is considering an appeal.

“The sculpture was really made out of a need to respond to my feeling of being violated,” said Rammell. “In Canada we used to be able to make caricatures of politicians and they would have a good laugh over their morning coffee.” …

Steven C. Dubin, a professor of arts administration at Columbia University’s Teachers College who studies art and censorship, described the Capilano administration’s decision to remove the sculpture as “pathetic.”

I think universities should have considerable discretion about what is displayed at the university, at least in places where only a few things get to be displayed (as opposed to places deliberately open to all students or all student groups to display their own views) — just as universities should have considerable discretion over whom they invite to give lectures (as opposed to whom student groups invite). I don’t know enough about the nature of this particular space to opine further.

But the claim that this is legally required to prevent “harassment” — and indeed the very labeling of such speech as “harassment,” a term with legal consequences — strikes me as much more troubling; it suggests, for instance, that a university that chose to tolerated such speech was acting illegally, or perhaps even that an individual who engages in such speech could be sued or prosecuted. And unfortunately, the vague and potentially broad term “harassment” has indeed been at times read to cover such political criticism, whether we’re talking about workplace harassment or criminal harassment, even in the United States, with our considerably more forceful free-speech protections. Argument such as Capilano University’s therefore pave the way for suppression of speech far beyond just a university’s decision about which sculptures to have displayed on campus.

And this helps illustrate my concern with new American proposals — which include criminal punishments — to ban “harassment and bullying.” They of course arise in response to very bad behavior, often behavior that seems to have little or no social value. But by using such potentially broad, ill-defined terms, they risk outlawing a much broader range of speech, especially given that people who disapprove of some speech will have a strong incentive to try to shoehorn it into these broad and vague categories.

From: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2014/05/22/critical-sculpture-of-canadian-university-president-is-removed-because-its-harassment-and-bullying/

May 03, 2014

Disgruntled Scientist

Dear Bullied Academics Group,

Here is my story of academic abuse from the US. (This is in case it hasn't reached your group already).  

Research Tech:
After completing my MS, I joined a multi-investigator lab at an Ivy league Univ. I thought that only hard work would matter. I worked diligently, long hours and never questioned my PI as I was just made to feel and told that I am just a technician. I kept telling myself that my hard work/publications will show. He put me as first author on national and international presentations that only he attended while I slogged away in the lab. I generated a lot of publishable data. During the two years in the lab, my work started getting published in high impact factor journals without my knowledge or any mention of me. I was involved in at least 5 "high reward" projects during my time there. The bullying was too severe and I was young. I mustered the courage and reported this to the HR after I received no response on this issue from my immediate PI and the other investigators in the lab. I had to subsequently report this to the people high up in the institution (Dean and provost). The result of all this was "squat". I was forced to withdraw my case and left with a mere acknowledgment that couldn't justify my efforts. I was given enough threats that I had to run as far as I could from that research area and the institution. I must add that during my stay there, I witnessed a lot of other unethical situations. My friend and colleague (also a technician then) was fired for looking into other opportunities on the side. They came to know of her job hunting when someone reached out to the lead investigator for a reference. I also witnessed a long legal battle with a courageous scientist who stated that they had been publishing fabricated data. They ultimately blamed an unsuspecting foreign postdoc for it. They ruined the postdoc's career. 

Grad School:
I moved onto grad school shortly thereafter at a nearby institution. I was asked to do a couple of rotations before picking a lab. The first lab was micromanaged by the PI and had alpha female grad students. The PI offered me the position but I refused politely. Out of vengeance for being turned down by a lowly grad student, she reported my stay in her lab as "does not get along well with lab mates but very talented". The grad students in her lab left no stone unturned in ruining my reputation either. I settled down in the lab of a young and promising assistant professor's lab. I was honest and informed him of my mishap at the Ivy League Institution. In this lab everything was fine in the lab as long as the teacher's pet a sassy bully grad student was happy. Everyone feared this grad student and they watched to not offend her. Those who did were burned badly. One day, I took my chances because I had had enough. All hell broke loose when I made a minor comment to her in retaliation. Everyone isolated me in the lab for fear of being ridiculed by this high school bully. My lab mates got onto social media to ridicule me. I came to know of this and informed my PI with proof as it was unacceptable to me. My PI held a lab meeting and everyone ambushed me and my PI pretty much showed me the door. From then on, I put my head down and worked. I worked so hard that other faculty members in the dept. would stop me in the hallway and tell me that it was unethical of my PI to make me work that hard. 

My project was brand new. I built up all the techniques and guided everyone in the lab on it. My PI conducted a new lab course as part of his tenure package and got me to TA for it. It was a course structure that would have not worked from the get go. It was a genetic screen he meant to have accomplished by undergrads over a period of two months. I was the only TA. Of course the course failed and I got royally blamed for it. He did not even let me take some time off to visit my ailing mother back home in my home country as she underwent surgery with only my ailing dad by her side. His exact words were "what will happen to all the TA money you are getting for this course"? I confided in someone in the department regarding the reason for the failure of his course. Word got out and I faced my PI's wrath for the rest of my grad school. I wasn't sent to any conferences, he ensured I never published. He allowed other foreign grad students to go home but not me. He got their papers published in techniques that I taught them. I put my head down once again and worked. My project turned out to be the only successful project in the lab and the PI received his first NSF funding. Guess what? he did not even invite me for the lab grant success party. My only way out was to prove myself and my worthiness during committee meetings. I shone each time and my mentor could not play his games there. My committee and faculty members in the department saw that I was actually smarter than my PI.

Sometime in between years two and three with my mentor, we ran into bad luck with a PI from a competing lab who was doing the exact same thing but using a route "B". So we decided to "join hands"/"collaborate". This has had its fair share of issues with the competing PI bullying my own advisor! This paper got rejected twice already from a top and mid-impact factor journal (but of course!). I fulfilled everything I could and tried to wrap up and managed to receive his blessings. During this time, I reported another unfortunate incident to my PI that he should have acted on immediately based on the nature of the incident. He chose to look the other way. I informed the next in command in the department regarding this incident and alarms were raised immediately. It was such a serious issue that the school did everything to fix the situation and in due course of investigation my PI got pulled up. Of course my PI was saved and forgiven. So there goes my relationship with him yet again! I had to find a postdoc soon and graduate. This was going to be difficult with my profile as there is years of training and still no publication!

I was finally filled with excitement to receive a postdoc position in a cutting-edge research area. It was too good to be true and I was overjoyed. I did everything in that lab right. The PI turned out to be the worst form of micromanager. Everyone was involved with reporting everything to him when pushed against the wall. What we did, what we said, where we went and for how long. It was a no sitting, no reading and all work kind of a lab. It was slowly revealed to me that this PI had a bad reputation and I was advised by some senior postdocs from other labs to leave. I didn't pay attention to these warnings until it happened to me! I tried to report to him the misconduct from a grad student. My postdoc PI looked the other way too because he worked in close collaboration with the PI of the grad student in question. What I got in turn was hours worth of verbal abuse behind close doors because I had heard and knew way too much about him and I was getting in way of his collaboration. I kept quiet went through the whole ordeal and left for home. The PI realized probably he shouldn't done what he did, out of saving his face, he contacted my PhD mentor and all my committee members to ruin my reputation and said "she did not get along with lab members and is not fit for collaborative research" and "please do not give her a good reference". She is not as good as I was told she would be. He personally wrote to me barring me from future employment with the center as well. I found out later that my PhD mentor had been in constant touch with my postdoc PI for the three weeks that I served as my postdoc in his lab. I ran back to my PhD mentor knowing everything he had done and did in the past, begging him to not sit on the manuscripts I already wrote. I was told that my manuscripts were the last of his pile of things to read!!!! I was advised by him to take time off and have a family or move on to the industry. 

Please advise:
Should I still stay in academia? Is this happening to only me? How should I have handled situations in the past? Should I continue with my postdoc search given that my publication record does not exactly indicate my productivity and I cannot attach my story as a separate document with my CV. The abuse in academia has broken me. Is there any hope?

Disgruntled Scientist

Dark thoughts: Why mental illness is on the rise in academia

Mental health issues among academics in UK universities are on the rise.

Mental health problems are on the rise among UK academics amid the pressures of greater job insecurity, constant demand for results and an increasingly marketised higher education system.

University counselling staff and workplace health experts have seen a steady increase in numbers seeking help for mental health problems over the past decade, with research indicating nearly half of academics show symptoms of psychological distress.

Culture of acceptance
A recent blog on the Guardian Higher Education Network blog, which highlighted a "culture of acceptance" in universities around mental health issues, has received an unprecedented response, pointing to high levels of distress among academics.

The article, which reported instances of depression, sleep issues, eating disorders, alcoholism, self-harming, and even suicide attempts among PhD students, has been shared hundreds of thousands of times and elicited comments outlining similar personal experiences from students and academics. But while anecdotal accounts multiply, mental health issues in academia are little-researched and hard data is thin on the ground.

However, a study published in 2013 by the University and College Union (UCU) used health and safety executive measures, assessed against a large sample of over 14,000 university employees, to reveal growing stress levels among academics prompted by heavy workloads, a long hours culture and conflicting management demands. Academics experience higher stress than those in the wider population, the survey revealed.

Tackling perfectionism

Pat Hunt, head of Nottingham University's counselling service for staff and students and a member of the UK body for heads of university counselling services, said all universities were experiencing an increase in mental health problems.

"There are increasing levels of anxiety, both generalised and acute, levels of stress, of depression and levels of what I would call perfectionism," she says.

"By that I mean when someone is aiming for and constantly expecting really high standards, so that even when there is a positive outcome they feel they have fallen short. So instead of internal aspiration helping them to do well it actually hinders them."

Academics are also caught up in a range of cycles, from league tables and student satisfaction surveys to research league tables, that dominate thinking, she adds. In one case, a department's top position in a research profile "became a poisonous thing because everyone then fights to maintain that". Hunt said higher education should not be stigmatised for the increase in mental health issues, since it reflected a similar increase in wider society. Figures show more working days are now lost to the mental health problems than any other health issue.

Nottingham offers one-to-one and group help to students and staff, including support specifically targeted at men, who make up only a third of those seeking help, a figure likely to reflect the continuing stigma over seeking help for mental illness.

Increased workloads partly to blame

Dr Alan Swann of Imperial College London, chair of the higher education occupational physicians committee, blamed "demands for increased product and productivity" for rising levels of mental health problems among academics.

He says: "They all have to produce results – you are only as good as your research rating or as good as your ability to bring in funding for research."

Swann says most academics are stressed rather than mentally unwell: "They are thinking about their work and the consequences of not being as good as they should be; they're having difficulty switching off and feeling guilty if they're not working seven days a week."

Academics and researchers can become isolated and not realise how "out of kilter" their working lives are, he says.

The intense pressure of doctoral and post-doctoral study, and early-career academia can also reveal existing mental health problems, he adds. Universities, including Imperial, have improved systems to help, yet academia remains "pretty macho".

Uncaring academic environment

"There's still a degree of 'if you can't stand the heat, you shouldn't be here'," says Swann. He says there are "still people in senior positions in academia who actually don't care".

He adds: "But there are measures to counter that and there has been a lot of change for the good. What we have not been able to get rid of are the external pressures from government funding and the academic marketplace."

Research by Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, on behalf of the UCU, offers one of the few pieces of data on mental health problems among academics.

Kinman used the health and safety executive's health and safety at work framework to assess the views of some 20,000 academics, and found "considerably higher" levels of psychological distress than in the population as a whole.

She points to poor work-life balance as a key factor, with academics putting in increasing hours as they attempt to respond to high levels of internal and external scrutiny, a fast pace of change and the notion of students as customers – leading to demands such as 24-hour limit for responses to student queries.

Internalised values hard to shake

There are examples of good practice within universities which could be shared across the sector, Kinman says, but, as an independently-minded group who are strongly committed to their work, academics are not always straightforward to support. "We don't like being told 'you can't email at two in the morning'. You can't impose solutions from other sectors – academics are quite different and there's no 'one size fits all'."

And internalised values are hard to shake. Nadine Muller, lecturer in English literature and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University, suggests that academia promotes the blurring of lines between the personal and the professional – often described as "doing what you love".

"This means that doctoral and early-career scholars are seldom trained in how to firmly draw that line and value themselves beyond their work," says Muller.

UCU says issues relating to mental health are frequently encountered by its representatives. General secretary Sally Hunt says sufferers experience particular prejudice at work. "Further and higher education workers who experience issues relating to mental health face ignorance, discrimination and stigma from their managers and colleagues.

"Negative and inflexible attitudes can often exclude those with mental health conditions from being able to do their job. Often these attitudes can intimidate a person away from feeling able to disclose their mental health condition at all."

John Hamilton, head of safety, health and wellbeing at Leeds Metropolitan University, says academics' problems are often a question of burnout, which he defines as a "significant disengagement" with an employer, in which a staff member no longer feels in charge of their role. Some universities, including his own, are working hard to offer support, he says, but while many could "definitely do more", there remains a fundamental problem that some academics simply do not like the changes in their sector that have taken place over the last 20 years. "For some, it's going to be a case of 'I'm sorry, but this is the way it is, this is the political landscape'. So there's an element of putting up with it."

If academics already in post must wrestle with the stresses of fast change, what of their successors? Edward Pinkney, a mental health consultant working in education, says: "Institutions have a broader civic duty to educate potential academics about the university environment, so that prospective academics can make a more informed decision about whether or not to proceed.

"As universities become increasingly businesslike, there's a growing need for them to be independently monitored to ensure that they are not just meeting basic standards of support for their members, but also that they are providing an accurate representation of academic life and not misselling it."

From: http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2014/mar/06/mental-health-academics-growing-problem-pressure-university

April 09, 2014

Let’s discuss the way we live now

Last month, the chair of the University of Oxford’s Faculty of Philosophy stunned many former student colleagues of suicide victim Charlotte Coursier by suggesting that the novels of Anthony Trollope may comfort those upset by the continued presence in their community of an academic that she claimed had harassed her.

Philosophical appeals to literature are usually heartening, but real life is not an epistemology seminar. If this remark is representative of academic approaches to student welfare, the sector has a serious problem.

Ms Coursier, a graduate student in philosophy, committed suicide in June last year. The previous month, she had informed the faculty and the police that she was suffering harassment. The alleged perpetrator, Jeffrey Ketland, was a lecturer and fellow of Pembroke College. The coroner’s inquest into her death last month heard that he received a harassment warning from the police, but he remained employed. It was not until last week that Dr Ketland revealed on a philosophy blog that he has been sacked.

I have not read Trollope. Apparently he depicts the dangers of deceptive appearances; the plight of ignored innocents. Doubtless our faculty chair was right that imaginative exertion can help people understand the importance of due process. Yet, in my experience within the philosophy community, both in person and online, most engagement with harassment in higher education deploys the imagination selectively. Students are encouraged to inhabit the perspective of the alleged harasser, and overlook the viewpoint of victims or those students who feel unsafe. This imaginative imbalance harms students. We need richer reflection about serious responses to harassment.

Oxford students articulated their outrage at the university’s response to Ms Coursier’s allegations in an open letter. Outrage seems lifeless without context, so imagine learning that members of your own academic faculty were not informed of the alleged harassment and suicide of one of their students. Then picture sitting in meetings listening to senior academics emphasising the “epistemic problem” of harassment, but ignoring the psychological toll that the gradual emergence of the details of the case has taken on their students.

You expect, given your institution’s duty to protect the vulnerable, to have all relevant information passed on to you. Instead, you are confronted by silence. Your emails are ignored and your freedom of information requests rebuffed. At the very least, you expect a statement from your faculty, but none is forthcoming. So you wait. Eventually you read about the student’s alleged harassment in a newspaper. Still nothing. Finally, after national media coverage, a cryptic email invites you to a meeting. It is at 8pm so you are thankful you live close to the faculty building and don’t have children. When you arrive, there is much talk of justice, and a smattering of Latin phrases. You’re told there will be “no discussion of specific cases”. To understand why, a professor advises you to read Trollope.

Things could be worse. Imagine having arrived at the university last October. Other universities offered you funding but you rejected it to work at Oxford with the leading expert in your field. Months later, quite by chance, you indignantly learn of allegations that that expert harassed a student. Despite that, you then learn that he has still had “institutionally mediated contact” with students.

Oxford says it has been as communicative as the law permits it to be and many think the university’s silence illustrates its diligent adherence to harassment policy. Let’s presuppose the university did adhere to its procedures in responding to Ms Coursier’s allegations. (Philosophers enjoy thought experiments.) The conclusion must then be that these procedures are inadequately timely and transparent.

Yet some faculty members conceded that the faculty could have done more to communicate with current and prospective students. This highlights the importance of taking the widest range of supportive actions consistent with existing university policies. Only sensitive and accommodating action by departments can prevent harm to student communities in such situations.

University regulations define harassment as conduct with “the purpose or effect” of “creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment”. The caustic irony of these past months is that if the University of Oxford were itself a person, it would be open to accusations of harassment. It created an intimidating and offensive environment by failing to respond adequately to allegations. It failed to do everything possible to support and reassure vulnerable students in a manner consistent with the law, or to explain to them why this was not possible.

Harassment is deplorable because it is traumatic and disruptive. Students have to battle both of these effects when a university allows a person who has been accused of harassment to continue to have contact with students while official procedures drag on and on. No amount of Trollope will remedy that.

From: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/comment/opinion/lets-discuss-the-way-we-live-now/2012385.article

April 08, 2014

A normal routine...

I have been bullied in the most unprofessional way possible by a senior manager and, nothing was done about it until I decided enough was enough and put in a formal grievance in with full documentation and evidence against the senior manager who had been bullying me.

The whole process was dragged out and false allegations were made against me! It turns out that I ('The Victim')... am now seen and treated as the perpetrator!!!

There is so much 'gate-keeping' and lies around bullying, harassment and discrimination, that the truth cannot come up for air... The individuals 'in power' within the organisation(s) do not want to actually admit that this bad behaviour is consistently going on within their organisation and, no one person wants to be the one to 'press the button' to start the fair process going!

It has got to the point where one has to think that they ('The Powers That Be') actually endorse this kind of behaviour themselves!

Anonymous academic