Almost exactly 2 years ago I had probably the only truly “good” ending I have had in my life when I left my university job after 26 years. Why was it good? I think that’s a combination of having been able to plan it and be in control of much of it, leaving myself time to enjoy the bits of it I was going to miss, and the sheer physical task of clearing an office after that long meant that it was all very real. Sometimes I spend so much time in my head that physical cues and meaning are especially meaningful. And yes, work did throw me two send-offs where they said nice things, and I hosted one myself – all pre-pandemic – which definitely helped.
A great friend and former colleague of mine is leaving his role this week after a similar length of time. These would be my tips for him and anyone else making this kind of move:
Accept that you will never finish everything as neat and tidily as you would like. Pick the three things that are most important for you to leave well and sort those. Then make time for conversations with the people you will miss, and for processing your own thoughts and emotions.
All the nice things that people say in the next few weeks and genuine, authentic and true. Practice receiving them generously and don’t downplay your contribution. It might get overwhelming. Truth be told, I can’t remember the details of everything lovely that was said at my leaving do’s, but I do remember a general feeling of warmth, appreciation and love in it’s broadest sense. In both directions! My oh-so-wise research group made sure that I had copies of the presentations and the videos that my former students had made as I definitely couldn’t take them in at the time.
Just like you choose what to take with you from your office (in this case this is relevant but it may not be for those working from home or with a different working environment), you can choose what to take with you in your head and your heart. What will you take, and what will you leave behind?
Starting a new role or adventure is a great opportunity to make changes. I’m not saying you should feel that you have to reinvent yourself, but you can choose how you want to start out (and if you feel you can’t because you feel you have to behave in a certain way to fit in, then we need to have a chat about where you are moving to and why!).
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.
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.
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.