In 2011, Samula Mescher obtained her PhD with a study investigating how organisations support a proper work-life balance for their employees. She is currently employed as an independent coach and trainer helping academics to achieve a better balance in their work and extract more energy from it.
Does she feel that the nature of work pressure has changed in recent times? Mescher cannot say so with any certainty, she feels. ‘However, what I am seeing is that the teaching load and the emphasis on external funding have been increasing even further in recent years. This has led to the work pressure as it is experienced increasing enormously across the board.’
According to Mescher, work pressure has an impact at three levels: at the policy level, at the level of culture and work processes and at the individual level. In practice, she finds that these three levels often clash.
‘For example, you might see that policies that were designed with the best of intentions have a detrimental effect at the level of the individual. Take an increased budget for training and education, for example. Many academics love to learn and are happy to take an extra course or training session. However, as the hours involved not budgeted for, they end up encountering time issues.’
In other cases, individual academics experience difficulties with the academic culture, Mescher continues. ‘Take working part-time. Formally speaking, there is the opportunity to do so, for academics too. However, once you start working part-time, you are often no longer taken quite as seriously as you were before. This is something you then also encounter when applying for grants, since you often lose out because you have less time for research and publications. That subsequently increases pressure at the individual level.’
‘A question from a single individual led to work pressure relief for the entire department.’
Ideally, work pressure is dealt with at multiple levels, Mescher explains. ‘To give you an example from my own practice: a postdoc made an appointment to discuss work pressure issues, which were so severe that she was wondering whether she wanted to continue working in academia. We began to analyse where it was that she encountered difficulties. It turned out that, at the lab where she was working, she was supervising a number of PhD candidates and Master’s students. Every 5 or 10 minutes, she would be interrupted with a question, which seriously impacted her ability to concentrate.’
‘For this postdoc, the solution was creating something along the lines of office hours for queries, and it turned out that the PhD candidates and Master’s students were perfectly capable of “saving up” their questions.’
‘At the individual level, this solution immediately offered relief. At the same time, it became apparent that other colleagues were dealing with this same issue. Ultimately, the decision was taken to work in that manner on a structural basis, with questions and requests being bundled together to a greater extent. This meant that a question from a single individual led to work pressure relief for the entire department.’
What Mescher means is that you need to bear the wider context in mind. ‘Many academics think that work pressure is an unavoidable consequence of working in academia and that they are the only ones experiencing a certain imbalance. This is despite the fact that it often involves a problem that is felt more widely, which it might be possible to resolve with just a few minor measures.’
All in all, the complex academic environment makes high demands on people. Bearing that in mind, how does Mescher view the current coronavirus crisis? ‘On the one hand, you have people who actually find it quite pleasant to be at a bit more of a distance. However, many employees are also experiencing extra pressure, suddenly having to deal with things like teaching or administering exams online. Along with this, many people are dealing with caring for their children, providing informal care and worrying about the health of their immediate circle. In such extreme special circumstances, with all the emotions involved, is it at all proper to expect the same level of productivity as before?’
According to Mescher, there is a risk that, once the situation returns to normal, we will immediately want to revert to the way things used to be. ‘In many cases, things won’t be that simple. Some tasks will have been postponed or will not have been dealt with yet, causing extra pressure. However, this crisis also provides opportunities.
Perhaps we will come to understand that certain tasks, consultations and procedures are less important than we thought.’
Over the course of the next decade, Mescher especially hopes that the sector will be able to develop a much more diverse impression of what comprises a ‘good academic’. ‘The emphasis is currently still very much on reeling in publication points. But I believe that good science is supported by three pillars: research, teaching and valorisation. Many academics find the latter very enjoyable and interesting, but are simply not given the opportunity to engage in it. I truly hope that we can all dispel the notion that there is only one possible career path, and that all three of these pillars will receive the attention and recognition they deserve. If you do something you truly love, work pressure will certainly stand less of a chance.’