Covid-19 has posed a variety of challenges to societies and organisations across the world. Universities are no exception. In particular, the pandemic has served to cause further imbalance to well-being, work life equilibrium and mental health-related issues facing academics. For example, in a 2020 study, academics in the UK reported lower wellbeing than the average employee. A recent multi-country research published in ‘Nature Human Behaviour’ suggests that the Covid-19 pandemic has increased negative emotions and decreased positive emotions globally. Such experiences are found to contribute to several negative psychological, behavioural and health consequences such as anxiety and depressive disorders, impaired social connections, compromised immune system, disturbed sleep and eating habits, increased aggressive behaviour, impaired learning and poor job performance. Regarding academics, research has also shown that this is a population particularly vulnerable to mental health problems.
The importance of this topic is evident from the fact that at least two professional development workshops at the British Academy of Management (BAM) Conference 2021 focused on these issues (BAM, 2021). I was a co-organiser of one of these workshops along with Associate Professor Christina Scott-Young (RMIT University), Dr Diana Rajendran (Swinburne University of Technology) and Dr Ashokkumar Manoharan (Flinders University). The present article sheds some light on these issues informed by relevant literature, university policies and scholarly conference discussions.
Pre-pandemic state of affairs
Indeed issues of wellbeing and mental health facing academics precede the Covid-19 pandemic and are found to be associated with large-scale structural changes in universities such as massification of enrolments, larger workloads, reduced government funding, increasing performance demands and precarious employment contracts. ln a global neoliberal context, academics are increasingly viewed as ‘knowledge workers,’ and educational outcomes are viewed as ‘economic goods.’ In recent decades, universities have gone through significant and rapid changes in terms of structure, hierarchy, vision, values and practices to adapt corporate models of management within academic life. There are extreme pressures on academics to provide high-quality of teaching, bring in external income, improve the international visibility and brand of their university, manage a heavy administrative burden and publish research in highly ranked journals. The current decade has seen almost three times increase in academic staff need for counselling services. About half of UK academics reported depression, sleeping issues and cognitive impairment. A study published in 2016 found that mental health of academics was worse than police or medical workers and that levels of emotional exhaustion in university staff are similar to ‘high risk’ groups such as physicians and nurses. In fact, university employees receive less support from the organisation compared to twenty other occupational groups.
Covid-19 related challenges
In the aftermath of Covid-19, there are concerns that the pandemic has made work more difficult and stressful for academics. Socio-economic collapse, contracting the virus and the completion of the academic year are amongst the biggest worries of university employees.
In terms of work-related stress, there are two interrelated issues i.e. which are role overload, for instance, developing and delivering virtual lectures and resources in addition to routine teaching and researching assignments. And secondly, role conflict for instance, enforcing academic discipline while also being cognisant of the pandemic related challenges facing students as well as limitations of virtual assessments. The commonplace (mis)perceptions that academics are doing less due to virtual teaching and little acknowledgement of their challenges and contributions by their employer also serve to dent their motivation levels. Job insecurity is the single major cause of stress and a challenge to mental health.
These issues are particularly onerous given the requirement to produce and upload recorded material in addition to routine teaching work. There is an associated challenge of assessing students’ progress online and responding to discipline and integrity related issues. Such issues may be rather daunting for those academics who are accustomed to conventional classroom or face-to-face model of teaching and may not feel technically competent or motivated to adopt to new ways of teaching.
Isolation, particularly during lockdowns is a key challenge particularly when individuals are not able to socialise and there are restrictions on mobility. Individuals’ inability to physically interact with people outside their immediate proximity or comfort zone may adversely affect their emotional and psychological health.
Of course, there are external variables that conflate this relationship, for example, gender, caregiving responsibility, the individual’s health, proximity to others, availability of social support etc and most importantly, personal experiences of Covid-19 among family and loved ones and the added anxiety for their wellbeing.
Faculty members with care responsibilities may be in a particularly stressful situation as they may find the issue of work-life balance more challenging and may feel time-starved to fulfil scholarly responsibilities. This may adversely affect their tenure or probation. Even those who do not have a dependent and are sick at home may experience extreme isolation and may feel stressed for the want of doing something constructive. The increased workload, the intensity of online work and the blurred boundaries between work and family may lead to exhaustion.
There is also an element of intersectionality of virtual work with family circumstances or/and ethnicity and in some instances, work may take a back seat with implications for individuals losing direction or career. Individuals with migrant ethnic minority background may face extreme isolation as their extended family and informal social networks of support may not be available in the host country.
A cursory review of university websites and their public documents suggests that issues of mental health and wellbeing are either neglected or remain very low in organisational priorities. In response to Covid-19, universities seem to prescribe homogenous solutions and policies without giving due attention to internal diversity of their employees such as in terms of gender, family situation, ethnicity and health. There seems to be an element of lip service where politically correct phrases and terms are used with little evidence of substantive social and psychological support provided to academics who are facing increasing workloads and isolation.
There are however, several ways in which university responses and management interventions may address the stressful challenges posed by Covid-19. These pertain to job security (in the shape of tenure or permanent employment), role clarity (in terms of realistic performance expectations), flexibility (organisational and individual), autonomy (decentralisation, delegation and trust) and support services (For example, counsellor support), which may protect academics and other employees from many of the working conditions associated with occupational stress. Moreover, capacity development of university administrators and leaders to understand and tackle the pandemic and mitigate its adverse impact on employees’ wellbeing is of crucial importance.
A typical university response to virtual work and isolation is to organise virtual meetings, both formal and informal, such as morning coffee hour, Friday afternoon coffee meeting, virtual townhall, as well as informal mechanisms of support, such as touching base on a weekly basis and provide online training and counselling services. Some universities also offer internal virtual platforms for non-work-related discussions.
Notwithstanding university responses and government regulations, it is important to consider individual agency, resilience and personal situation which affect individual strategies to cope with Covid-19 related stress.
Scholars at BAM 2021 suggested several ways in which individuals strive to cope with the issue of isolation. For example, by engaging in physical sports and outdoor activities to break the monotony and intensity of online work. Academics from migrant backgrounds reported that they communicate a lot with family members and community members ‘back home’ (i.e in their country of origin) as a way of psychological and spiritual uplift during isolation. Individuals with family or extended family residing under one roof reported that their family affairs keep them busy and this helps them in addressing isolation. Indeed, a known positive implication of remote working is the fact that individuals have more time to spend on enjoying and building relationships with family members and close colleagues and have more time for sports and other hobbies. Moreover, frequent interactions with those individuals who are not directly suffering from Covid-19 may be a source of a positive view of life and the situation.
To boost their personal energy and motivation, academics engage in several innovative strategies such as yoga and other forms of meditation to enhance their ability to sleep and work. Other such rejuvenating activities include walking by the river on a beach or in the fields. Such interventions as well as sports and exercise not only help gain self-discipline and retain sanity but also indicate an internal locus of control. Journal of Further and Higher Education titled, ‘Stress among UK academics: Identifying Identifying who copes best’ by Darabi, M, Macaskill, A, and Reidy, L (2017) notes that support from colleagues and time management are amongst the commonly used strategies by academics to cope with job related stress and burnout.
‘Nature Human Behaviour,’ a multi-country test of brief reappraisal interventions on emotions during the Covid-19 pandemic by Wang, K, Goldenberg, A, Dorison, CA et al (2021) suggests that reappraisal, which is an emotion-regulation strategy that modifies how one thinks about a situation, is an effective strategy to reduce negative emotions and increase positive emotions during Covid-19. There are two theoretically defined forms of reappraisal—reconstrual and repurposing. Reconstrual involves changing how a situation is construed or mentally represented in a way that amends an emotional response to the situation. Examples in response to Covid-19 include the perception that by doing simple things such as washing hands, avoiding touching one’s face, keeping a safe distance, one can protect oneself and one’s loved ones from getting sick and to stop the spread of the virus. Repurposing involves focusing on a potentially positive outcome that could originate from the current situation in a way that modifies the emotional response to it. Examples may include a realisation that the pandemic situation is helping us realise the significance of meaningful social connections and helping us recognise who the most important people in our lives are.
Way forward and a call for compassion
Participants at the BAM 2021 conference also offered a few suggestions to university rectors, vice chancellors and senior administrators. These suggestions include:
- More compassion is needed from the higher level. For example, in the context of redundancy and performance review related decisions. Compassion for all is crucial because Covid-19 is a difficult situation to manage and the key performance indicators and institutional standards in this situation may need to be revisited.
- Be sensible in returning to the new-normal. For example, by placing a cap on the number of face-to-face vs online students and classes. Classrooms and campuses may be reopened in a gradual and sensible manner to avoid adding further stress to academics and students. Whether classes are online or physical, it is important to slow down.
- Formulate a clear post-pandemic strategy in a timely and transparent manner in consultation with all stakeholders. For example, there is an on-going issue in the Western world about making vaccines mandatory. Several universities have not made it mandatory for students to be vaccinated and it is a cause of concern for faculty members and their families.
- Devise innovative ways to generate funds to ensure continued sustainability of university and livelihood of its employees and to safeguard their well-being
In terms of the way forward, in depth empirical studies using a variety of research methods and frameworks, such as storytelling, critical incident, a relational perspective on diversity and the lived experiences of academics from a phenomenological perspective, may be conducted to develop a holistic, contextual and compassionate understanding of well-being and mental health related issues facing academics during the pandemic.
Jawad Syed, PhD is Professor of Organizational Behavior and Leadership at Lahore University of Management Sciences