We need to talk about sabbatical burnout

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

One of the conversations we have a lot at this time of year with SUs is about burnout and sabbatical officer workload.

It starts with exhaustion and being much less able to cope with setbacks and conflicts because of that exhaustion. Often, people then say “well you need pick some priorities” – and while there’s something in that, it rarely really seems to help.

One of the things about being an officer is that it usually involves a complex picture unfurling – where the more you see and hear about the way the union and the university works, the more you see things that could or should be fixed.

It’s true that the most effective officers eventually learn to pick some big, signature issues to nail – but what happens to all the other things that do need addressing?

The other conversation I hear happening a lot is “well let’s go through your diary and take some stuff out”. But often all that exercise serves to underline is how much expectation there is on the role from across the union and the university – which when added up isn’t really viable.

Those conversations about “hats” in July were theoretical – but who are these superhumans that can be a representative, an activist, a trustee and a facilitator/organiser all at once?

Worst of all, I hear talk of time management tips, of delegation strategies and of ways to ensure that the to-do list gets done. There’s no doubt that some of that can play an important role. But this might not be an efficiency problem, folks. It might be that the multi-faceted, respond and plan, big celebrity student leader role – in a large university, here in 2021 – isn’t actually viable in the future in its present form.

And if that’s the case, where do we go next?

Is it manageable?

I think you can argue that when it comes to university meetings – committees, working groups, 121s and so on, a large number of officers (especially those with President, Education, Welfare, International or Liberation portfolios) simply have too much on to be effective.

There’s two reasons for that. The first is that universities often allow their own governance (both formal and informal) to grow out of control – and sabbs being ineffective on those committees then becomes a subset of a wider issue, which is that the university’s governance is basically ineffective too. It’s often the student reps that notice this (university people often just become institutionalised by it all) and we’ve seen sabbs call their university VCs and registrars on this in the past – triggering helpful uni reviews in the process.

But that process only goes so far, and that’s if you can get it there to start with. A large and complex university probably does need lots of structures so that decision making involves all the people that it should. The problem is where the solution to student involvement in that complexity is “plonk the [same] sabb on it”.

That manifests in two extremes. You might get a project group or a school committee bypassing the SU altogether and handpicking its own students to sit on bodies. Or, you get a demand that the President or the XXXX Sabb attends a meeting they know nothing about and have no interest in. Neither is a good idea.

Worse is an issue that Jaudat Alogba (Middlesex SU) and Patrick O’Donnell (York Uni SU) raise in their blog on access and participation. We’ve seen endless examples of universities expecting “ordinary” students – often over EDI or access and participation projects – to give up their time (and emotional labour) to contribute. When you’re the only ones in the room being paid, and you’re the most marginalised students in the university, guess what happens next?

Across Europe on both of the previous SU study tours we’ve been involved in organising, things are different and better.

  • For example across eastern europe, the SUs may only have a couple of sabbs each – but for university committees, working groups and project boards they advertise for and pay (via a budget from the uni) student reps to fill the other positions.
  • In Scandinavia, often the SU will have negotiated a way for students fulfilling those sorts of roles to obtain academic credit for fulfilling those roles.
  • And in most countries, structures within schools and faculties are stronger – where the twin traditions of voice and student activities have combined over time to build much more effective and integrated academic societies that look after representation, activities, socials, curriculum development and so on – and produce better reps for school and faculty based structures as a result.

Crucially, what they don’t do is cut back the number of opportunities for students to be represented, or make overworked sabbs do even more.

Deeper not wider

The separate conversation is about breadth. Sabbs are often expected to know a lot and be able to input meaningfully in ten different portfolios that in a university context there are ten separate senior managers to cover!

One way to explore all of this is via a strategic review of the relationship between the SU and the university – that starts by asking “how do we make student input effective”, and then maps out respective roles and changes to improve things. We’d recommend a look at this briefing to see what other SUs have discussed over the years.

Another thing to consider is the tasks that we know officers don’t tend to be brilliant at – and instead of pumping them full of training, making other arrangements. We rarely meet sabbs that are good, for example, at the communicating – on – social – media thing (either where the audience is students or wider stakeholders). So – just as politicians in the real world do – why don’t we have aspiring media students managing the twitter and penning the blogs for them?

Another is about considering the role that staff – both student and career – have in representation. In some unions it’s still the assumption that only elected officers can ever do any “representation” – including, for example, talking to students or turning up to a committee meeting. This isn’t how trade unions work – so shouldn’t we challenge some of these assumptions? Why is it better for sabbs to be “out GOATING/GOALING” when student staff might need the income (and do it better), and career staff probably need to hear from students directly now and again?

But as well as all that, this is probably also (in the end) about roles. Nick Smith’s research on officer portfolios may be helpful here. Lots of SUs for example have sabb reviews – switching between “school/faculty based” officers and “portfolio” officers. But doing that pendulum swing misses how broad the roles are either way. As we said above, that “hats” thing pretends that someone can (and should) be great at things that are covered by at the very least four other other organisations in other sectors.

If we need campaigners, activists, representatives, trustees, organisers, facilitators, project managers, negotiators and a hundred other things besides, sure – it’s great that some sabbs thrive on that and learn a lot. But there’s also lots that think they’ve failed because they can’t, and loads that never stand because it looks too hard to do. Isn’t it time we stopped leaking student talent and developed lots more ways to be a student leader in an SU than being the sabb? Wouldn’t that, in the end, makle students much more powerful?

If you’d like us to help your SU consider some of the issues here, we’d be happy to help facilitate something. Get in touch.

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