When change is awful

This anonymous post has communal authorship. To support the author, we made a call-out for examples and we’ve embedded them in this post with the permission of the authors.


Photo by Robert Zunikoff on Unsplash

I’ll tell you what I’m really sick of right now: my university telling me that they understand change is hard for their staff. I’m an academic in an Australian university and I’ve chosen to publish this anonymously for reasons that should be obvious.

This post is a rant. It’s not a reasoned tracing of the whys and wherefores about how higher education got here. Other people have written about that in depressing detail already.

At many institutions, university leaders have announced big cuts and job losses. Then they go on about how they know change is difficult for staff. They proceed to offer a suite of empathy-adjacent tools and apps that are meant to help their people deal with the meat-grinder dynamics of higher education since 2020.

Newsflash: Change isn’t really that hard. If they had announced that massive changes would affect us all, and that these changes would result in bountiful resources, new opportunities for career building, and investment in me as a valuable staff member, I would be STOKED. Bring it on! I would have no problems adjusting to this change scenario at all. Zero. Zip. Nada.

The problem isn’t that change is hard. The problem is that university leaders aren’t really talking about any old change. They’re talking about awful change: budget cuts, redundancies and sackings, discontinuations and non-renewals. They’re talking about taking things away and diminishing the environment around you (yet expecting you to do the same – if not more – of the same work). They’re taking actions that push colleagues out and affect livelihoods and career paths.

It’s like our university leaders are shoving us into a room where we’ll be whacked with sticks, then being concerned that we’re reluctant, angry, or distressed about going into that room. I can imagine the executives on a zoom call saying, “Hmm, the staff are very upset about going into Whacking Room #4. Maybe we need to be seen to be doing the right thing. Can we provide them with an app for ‘How to be resilient when being whacked with sticks’?”.

And here we move onto one of the most infuriating things about all the euphemistic change rhetoric that’s saturating higher education right now: wellbeing apps and newsletters. These have been triggering an increasing fury of emotions as things have worsened (and will worsen still). Twitter accounts like @lifeadvicebot capture beautifully the inanity of the individualised ‘solutions’ to systemic problems.

University leaders strategise, often with external consultants, a whole suite of destructive changes to our workplaces that are all about the bottom-line. These changes create an environment that’s toxic with stress and anger. Morale becomes abysmal.

They then slather the salve of generic apps and tools on resulting issues in wellbeing and mental health. The ‘maintain your wellbeing’ dross targets individuals as the ones who need to fix themselves. This is tone-deaf and offensive as well as being expensive.

We’ve heard many stories from colleagues about the onslaught of wellbeing initiatives and awkward or callous leadership moments. The Campus Morning Mail focused on a university wellbeing newsletter that asked “is now the time to make life-changing decisions?” on the heels of confirming over 200 voluntary redundancies. Another university was sacking its staff, crying very poor, then giving all faculty a pack with a face-mask and branded sanitiser.

Another Australian academic had many thoughts to share on this topic:


“Health, safety and wellbeing at my university is dominated by psychological frameworks for “mental wellbeing” that ignore other ways of thinking about health and wellbeing (like cultural or structural approaches). The close relationship between wellbeing and health as a psychological practice (rather than also a cultural, social, political or structural one) and HR’s goals (our alignment to the university’s culture as a means of meeting ever-changing productivity targets) feels like a conflict of interest. I am not sure that our wellbeing neatly aligns with university productivity nor should it be, especially when job losses over the last decades and intensifying work demands inherently decrease wellbeing. Although the strategic planning that guides wellbeing work at the university stresses that this is the work of leaders just as much as everyone else, leadership rarely demonstrates empathy or an understanding of academic work in Australia. We could cross off any reference to the university in strategic wellbeing documents and add in “insurance company” or “digital marketing company” instead, and nothing would need to be changed in plans and documents; context is ignored. University staff wellbeing is of course going to be impacted by changing government funding, global demands for publications that boost metrics, centralisation and digitalisation of work processes, decreases in ongoing or tenured positions, and public distrust of academics and universities. Rarely do wellbeing initiatives or resources actively engage with this reality for professional and academic staff.

When strategies are suggested in meetings and presentations, they resemble the simple advice of white, middle-class mental health Instagram or TikTok accounts, merely reminding us to take breaks, connect with others or manage work/life balance. The people encouraging these practices seem to have little experience in safely and critically facilitating these processes and do not understand how they might be harmful for some people. For example, being encouraged right in the middle of a meeting to practice mindfulness by closing our eyes and feeling into our bodies and senses is not emotionally, culturally or mentally appropriate for all people, especially without some points about managing safety. Some contemplative practices like meditation can stir up flashbacks for people living with trauma or reinforce frustration and distrust towards psychological interventions, especially for those with a history of discrimination or coercion in the mental health care system. Questions and critique of moments like this are met with defensive or wishy-washy responses that answer nothing.

Presentations, resources and strategies blur different experiences of mental health challenges, workplace stress, mental illness, psychiatric disorders, mental wellbeing, and emotional distress into one concept. This means that the goals are unclear or too broad to be useful: preventing suicide? decreasing mental health related leave? better managing everyday stress? Better supporting colleagues living with long-term mental ill-health or other disabilities or chronic illness is ignored, just as leadership on managing changing work demands or supporting each other to enact boundaries at work are ignored. The university, like many others, connects with major healthcare companies to provide “services”, but there is no detail about what these relationships entail or why a university that teaches health science, health communication, critical approaches to public health, and other care and wellbeing related disciplines needs outside “expertise” to offer short-term interventions with unknown practitioners. Outsourcing the issues places responsibility onto colleagues who end up taking up and paying for their own care practices. I imagine that If I took my university to the GP to get a Mental Health Care Plan, no doubt it would be told it is living with dysthymia – low mood, hopelessness, low energy – symptoms that emerged long before the pandemic.”


A colleague at a South East Asian university flagged that their staff were invited to a seminar on how to avoid “online burnout” and to take time away from the screen in the same week the university announced that they were going back to online teaching. Meanwhile, in Australia, another university that declared it didn’t have enough money to pay staff paid for a communications consultant for one of their senior leaders after this person was heavily criticised for tone-deaf, empathy-lacking and badly-timed emails. A frustrated anger infuses many of our colleagues in higher education. Australian DECRA scholar Hannah McCann tweeted:  

Seeing the call-out for examples, many colleagues shuddered and said they’d immediately deleted or repressed these wellbeing overtures from their organisations. These initiatives appeared to cause more rage than calm.

What institutional leaders need to recognise when they shoehorn wellbeing into dire situations is that there is no ‘fix’ for that kind of awful change. The very least they can do is to be honest, non-euphemistic, and human.


Many thanks to Research Whisperer follower @michellecimoli for sharing these articles below – worth reading if you want to know why most of these organisational wellbeing programs grate so badly and don’t achieve much:

6 comments

  1. I am on vacation for the rest of the week which is allowing me to miss my library’s inservice day, which this year is meant to blend self-care with strategic planning (relaxing!). Someone will play the accordion, then departments will meet to discuss things like “what do you like about working here?”, then there will be a session on organizing your computer’s desktop (I kid you not), followed by “crafternoon” activities and what amounts to a popularity contest. (It’s supposed to be a work-oriented award thing, but a lot of the categories are about attitude, and since few of us talk to each other about what we’re working on… it’s a popularity contest. Yes, it’s like something out of high school. And whyyyyy does it have to be set up as a competition?). —— I deliberately planned to miss this.

    The corporate wellness crap we’ve gotten since the pandemic started (including my manager pretending to ask me for TV show recommendations so that she could monitor my viewing habits… yay?) has felt very much like “You are our equipment, be sure that you are taking good care of our equipment.”

    At least none of us lost our jobs. But we’re definitely starting to see people starting to leave (including my longtime collaborator), and I just had a second interview for a job at a private college that’s taking the pandemic WAY more seriously than my university/state is. It’d be a bit of a pay cut, but it might be worth it.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Well this just hit the nail on the head and the nail is well and truly in the coffin of higher education in this country. When bullied by staff and students a colleague was told that it was their fault that they had been bullied and that they needed training and counseling (because they caused the bullying!). Failure is endemic, lack of leadership is endemic, staff burnout is endemic.

    Like

  3. We have a terminology problem: stop kidding ourselves by saying “university leaders” Stop helping the adversaries by using their words to describe our reality. They are “managers” (in the best case scenario they are also competent). They are not our leaders. We have different goals, and our interests may be temporarily aligned at the best of times, and are quite incompatible in times like now.

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  4. The Australian University where I have worked as a casual tutor/lecturer/convenor for the last 15 years has stopped giving me work ‘because of the pandemic’ which is a lot of nonsense. They’ve cut courses, increased the size of classes and have doubled the amount of work for the lecturers who have not been made redundant. Toxic is not a bad enough word to describe the atmosphere in a previously happy department. They are obsessed with good mental health and staff wellbeing; art classes, walks around campus, at desk massages etc. No duty of care, but help from staff wellbeing if you can wait 6 months. Mental health is given only lip service. The author has said this more eloquently than I ever could. The university I taught at, I used to be proud of. I’d rather work in a call centre than work for them again and I will not let my children attend this university either.

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  5. Thank you for this. It’s strangely heartening that you’ve shared your understanding of a reality that people still find hard to fully discuss. I even write on the history of much of this but reading your post I still wonder … how on earth did we all end up in this situation? In which even “care” is coopted to it’s total opposite. Maybe things will change with current events. I hope so.

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  6. I completely identified with these sentiments – the exhortations to look after ourselves make me angrier and angrier as the one thing they could do that would make the most difference (decrease workloads) is the one thing they NEVER do and in fact do the opposite. We are always made to feel like, despite your exhaustion, you are not doing as much as your superstar colleague. The management totally exploit the genuine commitment academics have to to providing good learning opportunities and quality research. At my Australian university, they have introduced many new administrative procedures, previously done by professional staff which now must be done by already overworked academics. I feel quite hopeless though about anything changing – I would love to hear about a model where this is not the case, and that it possible to experience genuinely reasonable expectations and support in academia.

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