academics, coaching topics, Self-reflection, Work-life balance

Boiling academics – a post for Mental Health Awareness Week 2021

Its nearly 2 years since I left my employed role as an academic. I left because there was an opportunity to do more of the things I liked and values, and less of the things I found stressful and de-energising. Whilst being self-employed is certainly not stress-free even outside of a global pandemic, there is definitely a different feel to it when you have more autonomy and aren’t constantly fire-fighting. When I stopped my previous role, I had factored in a couple of months rest before getting going pro-actively business-wise. I expected there to be some emotional readjustment – after all my identity had been defined as an academic for 20+ years, but I didn’t expect the level of sheer mental and physical exhaustion that I experienced. I also found I couldn’t physically go near one of the buildings I had worked in – which was weird. Not so much “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone” but more like “you don’t know what you’ve lost ‘til you stop”.

I understand now that it was my body and mind finally having the time and space to “stand down” from constant state of alert. The rebalance of cortisol/adrenaline and other hormones was powerful – I hadn’t realised how much I was living in a constant “on” state. Constantly switching from task to task and most days full of meetings. Always another thing to catch up on. Since then I’ve learned that my inability to focus at times and my tendency to overcommit weren’t purely a function of my employer, but I don’t know how I kept up that meeting schedule.

A pot of boiling water.
Green tree-frog by Brian Gratwicke, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Having managed, coached and mentored academics at all levels I continue to see the extent of this inability to see the strain. It’s classic “how to boil a frog” urban myth territory – throw a frog into boiling water and it will jump straight out, put it in cool water and gradually turn up the heat and it will stay in until it’s cooked (note this is actually probably not true but I am not prepared to do the experiment to see – no frogs harmed here). Watching academics burning out, filling in every moment even when I had removed duties from them to help, always wary of missing out on an opportunity to the extent that they take on more and more is heart breaking and frustrating in equal measure.

It’s heart breaking because the load on academics now is horrific and institutions have largely failed to acknowledge this in any meaningful way. Yes, it’s been compounded by the pandemic with its need to duplicate teaching into online/hybrid mode, support students and colleagues from afar and maintain research regardless (never mind having to do this from kitchens, bedrooms and alongside co-workers or homeschoolers). But it was already bad before then. Academics are pulled in so many different directions these days that they are constantly stretched and risk snapping. This matters not only because we are compassionate human beings and these are people we are talking about, but also because some of these people may hold the key to solving the world’s biggest problems or educating the next generation of pioneers. When academics do finally reach breaking point, it rarely results in “a couple of weeks of sick leave”. The resultant adrenaline and cortisol crash means we are usually talking months off work, if not the end of a career, and often heavy personal cost.

A piece of string frayed and ready to break

Frustratingly, most institutions do have the power to support staff mental health better. Most institutions do have online employee assistance programmes and counselling but often the counselling team is overstretched and focussed on students. One thing that sometimes gets underestimated is the degree to which a stigma around “not being a proper academic” and admitting you need help remains. Compounding this is the strength to which academics identity is tied up with, well, being an academic – not surprising when people tend to have invested a huge amount to get to that position. I remember saying and often hear “I don’t want to do this anymore, but I just don’t know what else I could do”. This feeling also leads to a feeling of hopelessness which then contributes to the spiral.

As with most mental health and wellness issues, it is far more preferable to de-escalating the situation before it reaches crisis point. Whilst coaches are not generally mental health practitioners and should always refer people to a mental health professional where needed, coaching certainly supported my mental wellness by:

  • Getting me out of my head – academics are brilliant thinkers, but its not always helpful to spend all that time in our heads. Getting the worries and concerns out into the air via talking, or onto paper (be that writing, drawing or whatever works for you) is a big first step.
  • Strategising how to manage short-term survival on a day-to-day basis – prioritising tasks based on real importance rather than perceived importance can return a feeling of control and autonomy that supports mental wellness. In the longer term this means reconnecting with the reasons you do what you do and re-considering whether this is the way you want to do things going forward.
  • Helping me practice saying “no” – having planned priorities for the next few months can feel empowering – like you have permission (even if it’s just for yourself) to say no to things (or at least negotiate part way).

What we really need is an acceptance that current demands are unsustainable and unmanageable. Until then, I’d settle for a recognition that mental health is not just for students, and I’d love to see larger scale coaching programmes for mental wellness support available AND accessible for all university staff.