October 25, 2014

Bullying in academia: ‘professors are supposed to be stressed! That’s the job’

Bullying is rife in academia – and it is tolerated to an extent that wouldn’t be acceptable in other areas. I’ve seen careers wasted in academia just by bad management and bad practice. My story is an illustration of what can go wrong.

Shortly after I moved from my old university to a new job as head of a science research centre at a Russell Group university, my partner and I were hit by a series of problems in my immediate family. It started when a number of family members were diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses. We had to make regular visits and provide a lot of support. But the worst was yet to come – a horrific family tragedy, which was devastating for us all.

At the same time, my new role was a busy, high-profile job that included being on the executive committee for a major international journal and two UK funding committees. We’d had a reorganisation in the faculty and an extra layer of management was inserted. It was made clear to some members of the research group that performance had to be outstanding.

My newly-appointed line manager came to see me just as I was about to go home on a Friday evening. He asked me how things were. I said, “Oh, I’m absolutely stuffed, I’ve got no energy, I’m worn out.” He replied, “I’m not here to talk about that – I’m here to talk about your research performance.” In the discussion that followed he told me I should change the focus of our research. I explained that the work we were doing was slow and painstaking, but significant.

He was adamant about changing the focus, and I started to get more and more stressed. It was before the last research assessment exercise (RAE), and the vice-chancellor was saying he wanted the university to be in the world top 50 rankings, so my line manager was taking this as an excuse to do all sorts of things.

Other members of staff in my group would come to me saying, “I feel I’m being bullied, I’m being squeezed out, I’m being threatened.” We also had a regular monthly group meeting that I inherited from my predecessor. My line manager came and said, “I don’t want you to have these any more, I see it as divisive.” I think it was a threat to his autonomy.

I went to see a university counsellor, who I think was probably more used to stories about people’s PhD supervisors giving them a hard time. I told him my story and I could see his eyebrows shooting through the top of his head.

I had a couple of meetings with him. At the start of the third one, the fire alarm went, and we had to evacuate the building. Outside he said, “I’m really sorry about that, but I’ll call you to arrange another appointment”. But he never called. So I think it was actually too much for him.
I started to drink a lot. The pressure and weight of responsibility continued both at home and in work, so I went to see my doctor, who made an emergency referral to a specialist counsellor.

Then as it was getting closer to the RAE, my line manager called to see me. He said, “I want you to do this extra thing for the RAE.” I said, “I’ve got enough on, and I’m not adding to my stress.” He shouted at me, “You’re supposed to be stressed! Professors here are supposed to be stressed! That’s the job.” I said, “With all due respect, I don’t think any other professor in our faculty has had the stress I’ve had to cope with in the past year.”

He told me that a lot of people were stressed, and he still wanted me to do the additional work. At that point I started to look for a way out, and when the university was looking for ways to save money, they sent an email around saying that they were reorganising and would offer voluntary redundancy, which I decided to take. I was 48.

I put in a watertight succession plan with funding agencies to make sure that the person I’d recruited to my group as a lecturer could take everything over. I know that if I hadn’t done that, my manager would have dispersed my lab and my equipment, and absorbed it into the greater group.

In other industries, the human resources departments are really strong on bullying, and if there is any accusation of bullying, it’s taken seriously. But in academia, there’s a culture that the line manager or head of department has absolute power. They can make or break your career, and people very rarely go to HR. I have spent several years working for a drug company and there the climate was much more professional. You were trained to look after the people in your group and to look out for any warning signs. UK universities are 10 or 20 years behind.

Unfortunately, instead of institutions being encouraged to work together, we are now expected to compete against each other for the same, smaller pot of money. Until that changes, I expect the bullying culture to continue.

Are you being / have you been bullied in your job in higher education? Help us understand more about this issue by completing our survey

If you have been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this piece, contact Samaritans or National Bullying Helpline.

Would you like to write for Academics Anonymous? Do you have an idea for a blog post about the trials, tribulations and frustrations of university life? Get in touch: claire.shaw@theguardian.com.

From:  http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/oct/24/bullying-academia-universities-stress-support?commentpage=1