Letting ourselves go?

Canadian study of health issues affecting early career academics suggests that they may be sacrificing physical exercise in order to try to secure an inside lane position on the cinder track that leads to tenure. The study hints that if they’re doing this, they’re “letting themselves go”, and the point is touchingly made with an illustration of a bulging (male) waistline. Remedies include taking part in a charity fun run or “park[ing] your car far away to get a little exercise in on hectic days”.

The discovery that my university’s parking strategy is really an invitation to participate in a free workplace exercise program was briefly enough to bring on a bright stab of gratitude at whoever thought up that cunning plan.

But back to the Canadians.  They focused on assistant professors, who represent over 50% of Canadian full-time academics, and note that in relation to age peers in other professions, this group experiences significant negative health consequences because of their career choice, particularly when the early career years converge with early years of parenting to create the perfect storm of health pressures.

Their critical finding was that only 30.7% of the sample achieved the nationally recommended minimum level of physical exercise, compared to 49-54% for adults in their age range. This is, as people who like these kinds of sparkly numbers say, statistically significant.

Why do young academics do it?  Here’s how the Canadians see it:

For many, the allure of becoming a professor is the promise of a career that involves freedom of choice, national funding, opportunities for promotion, secured tenure-track advancement, and a flexible work schedule. It is no secret, however, that the path to becoming an established professor requires years of grueling, all-consuming service to prove oneself as worthy.

This is another of those speedbump moments. Why exactly is it that the path to becoming an established professor requires any of this madness? What good is it to anyone if higher education is staffed by people whose capacity for work-life balance is measured by meals eaten at the keyboard, work taken to bed, and the occasional furtive excursion onto dream holiday websites to relieve the grind of grading papers?

While we’re on statistics and the early career years, there’s a related discovery from research here in Australia that shows 54% of research postgraduates wanting to go on to work as academics, even though 30% of them feel that this is an unlikely hope. This gap is really critical in terms of morale and stress: what does it feel like to be financially and emotionally committed to a three or four year (or longer) trudge towards a qualification you’re unlikely to be able to use in the way that you want to, and that you might indeed have to hide on your resume for fear of appearing overqualified for a job that you can get?

Tenured Radical cautions those stuck in the trenches of university casualisation not to waste energy on bitterness about this. The problem is major, systemic and not showing any signs of clearing up soon:

The real problem right now is that education is in chaos.  It seems pretty clear that there is no commitment among private or public institutions to return to full-time labor, and this situation is unlikely to get better in the time frame you need to establish a life and a pension plan.

This is tough love, but it’s true.  The chaos in higher education is global and it’s affecting the health of everyone, from the senior executive to the casual tutor facing her first tutorial, in which there aren’t enough chairs, the data projector’s not working, and half the students arrive over twenty minutes late because of the parking problem, er, little exercise program.

It’s also not confined to higher education, although perhaps the pain of vocational disappointment is most acute in places where the applicants have hung around the workplace (as undergraduates and graduate students have) for long enough to develop a sense of belonging.  And Australia seems to be leaking $15 billion per year from workplace stress, so maybe it’s time to think about the long term harm to the economy from such poorly managed work-life balance that requires young professionals to choose between personal health, family or career future.

But the ripples in this toxic pond run wider still.  As one fully tenured “established professor” commentator on TR’s recent blog on academic health writes, in a message that I find really haunting:

I am at the point where I think, every day, about how I would like to just give my TT, 2/2 job to someone who wants it, because I don’t. I have paralyzing anxiety attacks at least once a week, I’m overweight, my relationships are suffering, my child is suffering, and I’ve had a tension head ache for the whole semester. I want to be alive, not half dead, up at 530 am to prepare a lecture for something I used to love and no longer care about.

The courage to write this in a public forum, even anonymously, is immense.  If I’m going to stand on a desk for anyone, it’ll be for this anonymous colleague (and her child), whose despair speaks for so many.

So to those university leaders who want to articulate a renewed vision for higher education, and I think many of us want you to, please remember that this needs to be a vision that is responsible to the health of all higher education employees, tenured and otherwise, because we are all also family members and neighbours and members of our communities, and we are not just letting ourselves go here.

Conversation welcome here