Can higher ed staff find contentment in the new normal?

During the pandemic many in higher education have worked unfeasibly long hours. Jeff Saddington-Wiltshire considers the systems, actions and culture required to avoid burnout.

Jeff Saddington-Wiltshire is a Student Engagement Officer at St George’s, University of London.

From the tripling of tuition fees to the introduction of TEF, NSS boycotts and UCU strikes, higher education has been a sector coping with change for well over a decade now.

Yet even as new technologies have emerged, the working environment of higher education professionals largely stayed the same until March 2020.

Since then, while the majority of us have spent significantly more time working from home, our working patterns have not changed. We’ve all checked emails whilst being on annual leave, worked late into the evening sat in front of the TV, caught up on work over the weekend and dreaded working through our ever-growing to-do lists.

It’s a situation that has worsened in the context of working from home, because there tends to be little separation between our professional and leisure space. We’re all stretched – and that’s fine, because we love what we do, right?

But the negative consequence of loving what we do and always being willing to go the extra mile is that we’re at risk of burnout, if we haven’t experienced it already. Burnout doesn’t just affect us, it has an impact upon our colleagues and the students we interact with.

Lockdown number #1 was a time to pursue single-person hobbies – yoga, baking, walking and knitting to name a few. Reading was my go to, and one of the books I discovered was Linnea Dunne’s brilliant “Lagom: The Swedish Art of Balanced Living”.

We have a lot to thank the Swedes for – and I’m not just talking about Abba, Ikea and Koppaberg. “Lagom” (pronounced LAH-GOM) is the concept of “not too much, not too little, just the right amount”. There are principles of Lagom which we can adopt to turn our working lives from “just too much” to “just the right amount” in the new normal.

Living a lagom working life

As Dunne puts it, lagom is something that is “just enough”. It is all about contentment and finding the right balance to lead a happy life.

This might mean saying “no” more often, having fewer priorities and doing them well, enjoying the outdoors, moderating social media use or reduced time spent in meetings. As part of a lagom working life, the Swedes have 15 minute “fika” (coffee breaks) in the morning and afternoon.

It’s all the things that we’ve talked about before, and it’s all the things that we encourage our students to do. Now is the time to take the steps to make our lagom working lives a reality.

But to do this, we need more than individual effort and attitude – we need cultural change at an institutional level and practical steps at a departmental level. There are things leaders need to do, and ways in which systems and structures will need to change.

Finding contentment

Being in a state of lockdown has allowed us all to reflect on who we are, what we want to achieve and what really matters to us. Each of us have our own definition of what contentment looks like.

For me, we are in the best position to achieve our goals and ambitions when we are energised by a state of contentment through having just the right amount of challenge and just the right amount of rest in our professional lives. Finding a staff is what we all strive to achieve – sometimes all it takes is a global pandemic to encourage us to press that reset button.

There will be times when our working commitments spiral out of control. In my role, I’m already thinking of clearing followed by the immediacy of welcome week. So as a result, as well as personal decision making, we need an institution-wide adoption of a lagom culture – where periods of increased working demands are actively and systematically supplemented with down-time, rest and recovery.

Navigating the new normal

It’s safe to say that working from home for 15 months has reshaped the working environments of higher education professionals. Although our working patterns have remained largely the same, there is a real opportunity for change as whole institutions prepare for staff to return to the office en-masse.

The question is quite rightly being asked in university return to site working groups, do we need to return to the office en-masse at all? A hybrid approach of working from home with essential face-to-face interactions on campus is surely a better approach as part of a lagom lifestyle.

The “new normal” for higher education professionals ought to be centred around a healthy work-life balance which allows us to thrive in our roles. This includes revisiting contentious issues regarding working conditions in higher education, such as workload allocation and the time required to prepare for online teaching sessions.

Practical departmental discussions need to be held about the frequency we are in the office. We need to start having honest conversations about what working conditions provide us contentment and the ability to thrive in the workplace. Examples include embracing flexible working arrangements around childcare commitments, optimising office space and screen breaks during extended meetings.

Ultimately, the best way to navigate the new normal is to ensure everyone on board has a say in creating their ideal working conditions. By adopting a “workers as partners” approach we can help to build a more pleasurable working environment for higher education professionals.

Lagom isn’t compatible with current ways of working in higher education and changing the working culture of a whole sector is an enormous task. But as we prepare to work on campus on a more regular basis as part of the “new normal”, perhaps it is time to embrace the principles of lagom to move from “just too much” to finding contentment in our working lives.

One response to “Can higher ed staff find contentment in the new normal?

  1. Good luck with keeping the ‘new normal’, although lockdown we (the Trades Unions) have been dealing with managers attempting to force staff back onto campus, ok mainly non-teaching staff, but the writings on the wall, most Universities managements could not cope with even simple flexible hours before and working at/from home has made that much worse in some/many places.

    Those of us who’ve been working on campus right through would welcome some extra time off too, as we’ve been carrying ‘displaced’ workload from others as well as often taking our own work home too. With those who are not Academics often carrying the largest loads, several teaching technicians in one school have averaged 80 hour working weeks for months, running teaching labs (with students on campus) and working up next years teaching plan and all that goes with it without direct academic input or support.

    Our Universities effort to recognise the dedication of colleagues across the University through a one-off taxable payment of £600 to all qualifying employees (everyone from the cleaners to senior academics we haven’t seen for over a year, in post from March 2020) wouldn’t cover their overtime payment for one month if they’d been entitled to overtime (all such techs being upgraded some years ago to reduce costs by eliminating overtime was a neat if nasty trick). The burn out of non-academic staff has been widely ignored to, but as they are not the ‘headline act’ with ‘Academic freedom’ unless you have UCU reps willing to point this out they can be ignored then disposed of for ‘bringing the employer into disrepute’ if they go public…

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