Covid-19: universities can’t fix everything and that should be OK

University communities have been thrust into perpetual crisis mode - but staff burnout is counterproductive, says Simone Buitendijk.

We can’t go on like this. By striving to create an unachievable perfect replica of the past in a volatile, unstable present, we risk doing a disservice to the longer term future of our students and our wider academic communities.

That’s a message I think we should all keep front of mind as we try to keep our institutions open for teaching, learning and research in spite of the second wave of Covid outbreaks.

Academic communities in the UK and across the world are all working tirelessly around the clock, against the tide, and mindful of rules that change on an almost daily basis. We want and need to prioritise health and wellbeing, and we are also trying to keep educating bright young people who simply cannot fall between the cracks.

Caring too much

I am worried about my university community, about the staff and the students alike. When, back in March, Covid started to emerge as the disaster it still is today, we all went into full-on crisis mode. That was right, and the only sensible thing to do. We are now seven months further along, although it feels a lot longer, and there is still no end in sight.

I still see my colleagues working around the clock, still not sleeping enough, still being too stressed for too many hours, too many days a week; in other words: still in crisis mode. It comes from a good place; from dedication, commitment and wanting to do right by our students. But it’s unsustainable, it is at odds with finding creative and novel solutions, and it gravely concerns me.

We need to take care of ourselves and think about the longer-term goals we want and need to achieve as well. It is so painfully obvious that too many people will burn out otherwise, and we will all be in worse shape. And it will ultimately be counterproductive. Yet, it is very difficult to even start those conversations.

The reaction I get when I bring up the issue of sustainability of current efforts with my colleagues is often one of “yes, but”. The list of “buts” is endless. But: the students need to be taught exactly like we promised before the summer; we have to ensure that not a single one of them contract Covid; we have to take care of them when they are self-isolating to the degree that they will be totally happy; we have to communicate with their parents so they will all feel secure; we have to ensure that not a single student breaks any rules on or off campus; we have to make sure that if they are on campus they are all totally happy and similarly when they are off campus.

And that’s just students, a similar list of “buts” dominate the thinking of colleagues primarily engaged in research, and the essential services that underpin our academic endeavours. So the list is almost endless. Staff will continue working too hard and not sleeping enough, or not enjoying time off with family or friends that is vitally important for mental health, until all the goals have been reached, I fear.

And therein lies the problem: our shared ambition framed in that way cannot be reached no matter how Herculean our efforts. And we need to start accepting that fact. That is not at all advocating for complacency and becoming uncaring, we still have to do our very best for our students to the very best of our abilities, and ensure their experience and their learning outcomes are good.

But we may have to redefine good and accept it is not the same as it would have been last year. In doing so, refocusing our efforts, re-prioritising as circumstances change, and looking at the middle to long term also, is the only sane and sustainable way forward.

Acceptance in adversity

I am old enough to have encountered quite a bit of adversity in my life. And it has taken me many decades and hard lessons to understand that the best way to deal with really tough, life changing challenges is to accept them first. Really accept them. For me to feel at a very deep level that they are a fact and the sooner I stop resisting, the better I can figure out how to overcome them. Emotions such as anger, anxiety and denial take up a huge amount of energy and focus and take us away from being effective and creative in the face of adversity.

The problem for me was that it took a lot of learning to even recognise the underlying denial of reality in many of my less-than-effective, but perfectly understandable, instinctive reactions. I kept frantically trying to get back to normal, or to feeling happy, without realising that normal or happy were (temporarily) out of reach. And in doing that, I could not focus as well on what to do to get out of the situation intact, or hopefully even stronger and wiser.

Every challenging life situation brings opportunities to learn and change. It is very hard to see those opportunities or work towards them when we are allowing ourselves to be in denial, distracted, anxious or angry.

I notice in my university colleagues a (very likely equally subconscious) lack of acceptance of the fact that we cannot possibly give our students what they would have had this academic year in the familiar way, had Covid not been around. It is almost as if we are personally responsible for the spread of the virus and are now, guiltily, trying to fix everything. (Working out of guilt is never a good idea, but that is for another blog). The danger of that mode is that the ratio between effort put into positive effects coming out will become higher and higher.

It is time we are open with ourselves, our students, their parents and the government: this academic year is really, really rough. Alongside this, we have no idea when the broader situation will change. However, if we accept that fact, work together as a community, and stop feeling guilty or blaming others, there are huge opportunities for all of us to be really well prepared for the changed world and the different workplace once the pandemic is behind us. And our students’ learning outcomes will be very good. We can only do that if we also take time for calm reflection and take care of ourselves and each other, as we deal with the present challenges as effectively we can.

We will do our very best to provide our community with an academic work and study environment that is as safe as possible and finds different ways to create a high-quality educational experience, but we cannot allow that effort to exhaust us. It will have its frustrations, and the sooner we forgive ourselves and each other for that, the better it is.

We need to save energy to still be intact once the virus is gone, and to keep working in a focused way towards the longer term, post-Covid reality.

We have to stop subconsciously feeling personally responsible for creating the terrible situation we are in and start treating our students like the adults they are. If we promise them something we cannot deliver, they, too, will spend a lot of energy on being angry with us, instead of on trying to find strength in and contributing positively to the amazing, empathic academic community we are. If we allow them to partner with us, share the burden, co-create innovative solutions that realise the potential of innovative ways of doing education with us, just imagine what wonderful graduates they will become.

They will be strong and they will positively contribute to the changed post-Covid world. I think that is a beautiful goal we should all keep working towards.

This article was originally posted on Medium. 

6 responses to “Covid-19: universities can’t fix everything and that should be OK

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with this Simone. I have found that self-compassion is the basis for facing adversity, and this begins with acceptance. The dark-side of the conscientiousness and dedication is personalisation – taking responsibility for things way out of our orbit. Radical acceptance is needed. And soon to prevent burnout on a huge scale. A great article.

  2. I agree with what is being expressed here. As a Prof of Mental Health Science and Dean, it has long been my approach. But self-compassion etc, is not just for CV. We must see this as a potential game-changer for the sector.

  3. Such sentiments from a VC gives us some hope, I think. However, how do we turn these sentiments into actual policy when we have become so wedded to counterproductive, short-term “strategies” and where institutions are forced to battle against each other?

  4. As a Trade Union H&S rep I agree we need to think differently and deal with the changed reality, unfortunately normal H&S consultation, already poorly done by the University, has now gone by the board, the regular consultation (often more reports after the fact and rule by edict) meeting has been put back 6 weeks from December to late January. This is the biggest HEALTH & safety crisis of a generation, yes safety is badly affected too by the lack of managers on site issuing Permits to Work to estates and Technicians working on Hazardous equipment’s, yet senior management seems to be more interested in examining the inside of their colons… Than protecting my home city and the local population.

  5. It seems quite clear here that the VC of Leeds believes this year *will* be imperfect, and *will* not match up to everyone’s expectations (‘we cannot possibly give our students what they would have had this academic year in the familiar way, had Covid not been around’). So if this is the case, can I ask whether students are still being asked to pay full fees? And if so, why?

    I fully support staff being protected from burnout. Indeed, in a normal year, many staff are in experiencing atrocious working conditions (see multiple strikes about overwork, precarity, pay gaps, etc) – this year has only amplified that, and they’ve had the solidarity of many students. It’s important though that students don’t just become a footnote in these conversations. We are largely the biggest funders of our institutions, the biggest stakeholders, and yet we are relentlessly treated as though our voices and experiences don’t matter. Which is the impression I get in this article in its lack of acknowledgement of what the pandemic has been like for students. Also shocking that tuition isn’t mentioned once.

    Simone Buitendijk writes that this ‘is not at all advocating for complacency and becoming uncaring’. Unless something concrete is provided to acknowledge the chaos and impact of this year to students, at the University of Leeds and at other institutions, something that materially acknowledges the way that students have been impacted, then unfortunately all of this is just rhetoric. Statements that amount to ‘doing right by students’ are ambiguous, non-committal, and absolutely do not cut it. For students it is complacency, and it is uncaring. It is a massive kick in the teeth and enraging for students nationally.

  6. this article sings to my heart!!!! academics are not good at being vulnerable we are not coping and we are totally burn out we need to start expressing how we feel and we need to be heard!!

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