Thinking about Your Workload

The first time I was asked to serve on a research council (standing) committee, when a young(ish) researcher, I did not seek my head of department’s position. I informed him, since it happened we worked closely together, but it did not occur to me to ask permission, to check whether he thought it was compatible with my departmental job. I just assumed it was part of the job. The only quibble I had with his response was that he insisted I attend the first meeting when, as I was still feeding my seven-month old baby, I had not intended to go to avoid the logistic complexities of attending a meeting in Swindon. My maternity leave was only 16 weeks back then, and that was generous.

When, many years later, I was asked to chair such a committee – again a standing panel, not an ad hoc one – I likewise did not think to ask for anyone’s agreement. I thought it was part of an academic’s role and I just had to fit it in somehow. Indeed, every significant role I’ve taken on – ranging from being the university’s Gender Equality Champion to chairing the Royal Society’s Education Committee, roles which probably foolishly I took on more or less simultaneously and then added in serving on the ERC’s Science Committee, I just made my own decision and got on with it. As far as I understood the ‘rules’, as long as I delivered research suitable for the RAE/REF and did the teaching and examining that was asked of me, anything else was up to me. All the roles I’m talking about were, fairly obviously, academically relevant and (I believe) beneficial to the wider community.

In Cambridge that seems to have been accepted in the spirit intended. Certainly no head of department ever hauled me over the coals, rather the contrary. We have (and have had for quite a long time) a workload model in the Cavendish Laboratory which takes external activities such as these into account, albeit hours for some types of activities are ‘capped’. For many years – because I also served on University Council and many of its dependent committees and at other times was a deputy head of department – my workload always came out towards the high end of the departmental distribution, even if there were many departmental tasks I did not do. I never, for instance, served on the teaching committee, and my actual teaching load was below average. But it all came out in the wash, as it were.

However, the more I talk to colleagues in other universities, the more I know how lucky I was and how enlightened our workload model has been. I hear depressing stories of people who devote a lot of time to issues connected with inclusion, or with professional bodies, who get zero, or close to zero allowance from their departments. Indeed, in one case they were told that, since they spent far more time on one of these activities than the workload in their university would ‘allow’ or take into account, they would have to take the time out of their vacation allowance. I was truly shocked.

There are instances, I hear, where it would seem jealousy that someone has made a name for themselves through outreach and engagement, with the public or with policy-makers, comes into play. Then they (and the plural here is not to disguise their gender, but because there is more than one case like this I’ve come across) face constant sniping from colleagues who then try to load them with humdrum chores regardless of the benefit (indeed including REF impact cases) they might be bringing to their department. Pathetically, in those cases where these stories surface, it is clear how much those impact cases will really matter. And just how much financial benefit does that bring? It seems incredibly short-sighted to say to such a person: you really do have to teach this first year course that the students hate and anyone else in the department could do, with the subtext that the department is going to cut you down to size.

Alice Roberts, without relating the jealousy to workloads, spelled this sort of attitude out

During my academic career I’ve encountered quite considerable opposition and obstacles to engaging with the public. Firstly, it is difficult to squeeze something else into an already busy job. But then there’s also – still, I think – a feeling amongst a few academics that communicating about your own research and your field more generally is a distraction, an irrelevance, a frivolity.

And what was the outcome of such negative views? Alice moved to another university where she is doing very nicely, thank you, as Professor of Public Engagement in Science. Departments should not be surprised if someone like her, who has risen to public prominence because of the excellence of their work outside the straight and narrow of the department but is treated as if they are bringing nothing special to the department, either digs their heels in or turns their back.

These issues are not unrelated to a recent study which highlighted the psychologically unsafe academic environment that so many academics, young and old, find themselves in: unsafe because of the stresses, the toxic workplace culture, the hostile bosses, the outright bullying and harassment and the overloading. If you have a workload model that can tolerate an individual working 140% of a normal (however defined) week, or that chooses to ignore a large part of that person’s legitimate academic activities because they are outside the department, then there is a problem. There is a problem for the individual, the department and the entire community. Is it any surprise that mental health issues are now such a major part of academia?

I would want to stress any workload model – and a department really needs one if it is to apply for an Athena Swan award convincingly – has to take into account the full spread of tasks and roles that benefit the department and the wider community. Maybe REF environment statements should require this to be more fully spelled out; the old-fashioned ‘esteem’ of the RAE had its own problems but did allow for explicit recognition of some of these activities. It strikes me as totally unacceptable that an individual rising to prominence externally to the profit (possibly literally) of an institution, should not be credited appropriately for that work. If no one could accept chairing a major committee – research council or anything else – because they would still be expected to contribute just as much to the department as someone not shouldering this responsibility, then where would our academic world end up? If no one served on Whitehall committees or were prepared to front TV programmes, would our universities be in a better place? I doubt it.

Perhaps I should have personally been less cavalier about what roles I took on without discussion – I know for sure in one case the person fingered as my successor to chair one of the relevant committees would not agree till they had ‘sign off’ from their head; perhaps that was wise and appropriate – but institutions need to recognize they are part of an ecosystem. If individuals are not permitted to take on diverse tasks externally, or only ‘permitted’ as long as no departmental allowance in their internal workload occurs, the whole system will ultimately grind to a halt. To, need I say it, everyone’s detriment.


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2 Responses to Thinking about Your Workload

  1. Bill Harvey says:

    When I began my life in the academic world in Dundee in 1977. My contract said there were no set hours or holidays. That I was expected to take at least 2 months holiday per year and that I should carry out the teaching allocated by my HoD and beyond that it was up to me.

    The changes in education (as very distinct from teaching) since then have been very detrimental. Research has also become entirely driven by the production of paper outputs because that can be measured and value cannot. In engineering, most academics now plough a narrow path in ever narrower and less applicable research and get their kudos from talking within the ghetto. What is the use of that?

  2. David says:

    I think institutes need to have people work diversely but also come up with a workload plan to reduce overloading.

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