Occupational stress among academic staff is at an all-time high, but technology can help alleviate the burden.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was already a mental health crisis among academic staff at universities. Occupational stress was already at an all-time high in the sector. The casualisation of academic roles, long hours, exponentially increasing administrative workloads detracting from teaching and research hours, and job insecurity have all contributed to occupational stress for well over a decade. And since 2019, “burn out” has been acknowledged by the WHO as affecting the likelihood of contact with health services. These are problems that have had a significant impact among academic staff.
As with so many existing problems, the pandemic has exacerbated this one: academic staff report higher stress and a heavier workload. The move to teaching online in particular has significantly increased those lengthy administrative hours for academic staff—poorly implemented or even simply new technologies have created longer working days and difficult adjustments for academic staff.
There has been some degree of institutional acknowledgement of the difficult times academic staff are facing. Melbourne University and RMIT have offered staff extra days of leave to support their mental wellbeing, and UNSW has instituted ‘recharge weeks’ to alleviate stress.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to say that these measures are treating the cause of the problem.
It’s not usually within an individual’s power to change overarching organisational practices or national policies. However, there are some things individuals can try on their own to help. Forbes recommends taking regular breaks to detach from the work, organising your time, creating a dedicated workspace and effectively prioritising tasks, and the Mayo Clinic reports that exercise, sleep, seeking interpersonal support and mindfulness are important. The NY Times suggests a holistic approach focused on practicing kindness and finding ways to lighten your responsibilities to make them more manageable.
Some of these suggestions include offloading labour intensive tasks onto other humans, but equally valuable may be the emerging practice of delegating to machines. While key stakeholders have complained of IT problems and poorly implemented technologies, well managed technology solutions can streamline administrative tasks.
Making the most of technology can’t fix the pandemic or resolve the expectations weighing upon academics, but it can reduce the administrative burden that so increasingly characterises academic work—and thereby reduce overwork and occupational stress.
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