Pandemic Burnout in Academia

Virginia Gewin, writing for Nature:

Even before the pandemic, many researchers in academia were struggling with poor mental health. Desiree Dickerson, an academic mental-health consultant in Valencia, Spain, says that burnout is a problem inherent in the academic system: because of how narrowly it defines excellence, and how it categorizes and rewards success. “We need to reward and value the right things,” she says.

Yet evidence of empathetic leadership at the institutional level is in short supply, says Richard Watermeyer, a higher-education researcher at the University of Bristol, UK, who has been conducting surveys to monitor impacts of the pandemic on academia. Performative advice from employers to look after oneself or to leave one day a week free of meetings to catch up on work is pretty superficial, he says. Such counsel does not reduce work allocation, he points out.

Academia has a rampant problem in how it is professionally configured. To get even a short term contract, now, requires a CV that would have been worthy of tenure twenty or thirty years ago. Which means that, when someone is hired as an assistant professor (with a 3-6 year probation period) they are already usually more qualified than their peers of the past and have to be prolific in the work that they contribute to and output, and do so with minimal or no complaints so as to avoid any problems in their transition from assistant to associate professor (i.e., full-time and sometimes protected employee).

Once someone has gone through the gauntlet, they come to expect that others should go through it as well: if the current generation can cut it, then surely the next generation of hires should be able to as well if they’re as ‘good’ as the current generation. Which means that those who were forced into an unsustainable work environment that routinely eats into personal time, vacation time (i.e., time when you use vacation days to catch up on other work that otherwise is hard to get done), child rearing time, and so forth, expect that those following them do the same.

Add into this the fact that most academic units are semi-self governing, and those in governorship positions (e.g., department chairs, deans) tend to lack any actual qualifications in managing a largely autonomous workforce and cannot rebalance work loads in a systemically positive way so as to create more sustainable working environments. As a result of a lack of formal management skills, these same folks tend to be unable to identify the issues that might come up in a workforce/network of colleagues, and they are also not resourced to know how to actually treat the given problem. And all of this presumes they are motivated to find and resolve problems in the first place. This very premise is often found faulty, given that those who are governing are routinely most concerned with the smooth running of their units and, of course, may keep in mind any junior colleagues who happen to cause ‘problems’ by expecting assistance or consideration given the systemic overwork that is the normal work-life imbalance.

What’s required is a full-scale revolt in the very structure of university departments if work-life balance is to be truly valued, and if academics are to be able to satisfy their teaching, service, and research requirements in the designated number of working hours. While the job is often perceived as very generous–and it is, in a whole lot of ways!–because you (ideally) have parts of it that you love, expecting people to regularly have 50-75 hour work weeks, little real downtime, little time with family and friends, and being placed on a constant treadmill of outputs is a recipe for creating jaded, cynical, and burned out professionals. Sadly, that’s how an awful lot of contemporary departments are configured.


On Interning at Slack – Code Like A Girl

From On Interning at Slack – Code Like A Girl:

I’ve had a rough year so far. After coming back to college, I got hit by a car and my grandfather passed away within two weeks of each other. I was diagnosed with a mental disorder. My grades slipped from As to Ds. I had to discontinue my classes in April, and missed two months of classes. I developed PTSD around cars and loud noises, and mourned my grandfather. I partied to not feel the pain and the fear of going outside. In May, I admitted myself to a psychiatric hospital so I could be sure that I wouldn’t hurt myself.

This probably doesn’t seem like it’s relevant. But it is. It felt like everything that could have gone wrong did. Slack was at every point in the process to support me.

I was given permission to call in black. I was allowed to work from home on the days I was too afraid to go outside. I was given a week to help transition my puppy to my house before he was to begin his service dog training. My mentor and manager, a woman and a woman of color, checked in with me at least once a week to make sure I was ok and asked about the ways they could best support me. I called in sick often on the days where every noise made me fear my life. I drew support from the greater Slack community when I needed help.

I made friends with other interns, and didn’t treat me differently after talking about my disabilities. I bonded over boba and makeup with the other engineers and writers at Slack. I spammed the #dogs channel with pictures of my dogs, and created #acai-bowls for those trendy connoisseurs. I was no longer a brown female queer intern with the service dog, but just another engineer. I gave a presentation to the Slack community about ableism and why it was important. And people listened.

This is what a company that genuinely commits to inclusivity and supporting employees looks like.


Good cooks are quitting the kitchen, and that’s bad news for your favourite restaurant

Good cooks are quitting the kitchen, and that’s bad news for your favourite restaurant:

For those making $14 an hour, we’re not even talking about fresh-out-of-school, no-experience, paying-their-dues cooks, who often swing $125 for a 12-hour shift that works out to less than Ontario’s legal minimum wage of $11.25 per hour. No, we’re talking about people who’ve spent years honing their skills, demonstrating their loyalty and work ethic in an industry where “passion” is used as a marker of dedication, and the perceived lack of it as a tool for dismissing any cook who complains about conditions or compensation. One chef I spoke with referred to this as a “crime of passion.”

I have a family member in the food industry, and it staggers me whenever I learn how much he takes home in a year after working 60 hour weeks, 51 weeks a year.


Working Anything but 9 to 5

Working Anything but 9 to 5:

SAN DIEGO — In a typical last-minute scramble, Jannette Navarro, a 22-year-old Starbucks barista and single mother, scraped together a plan for surviving the month of July without setting off family or financial disaster.

In contrast to the joyless work she had done at a Dollar Tree store and a KFC franchise, the $9-an-hour Starbucks job gave Ms. Navarro, the daughter of a drug addict and an absentee father, the hope of forward motion. She had been hired because she showed up so many times, cheerful and persistent, asking for work, and she had a way of flicking away setbacks — such as a missed bus on her three-hour commute — with the phrase, “I’m over it.”

But Ms. Navarro’s fluctuating hours, combined with her limited resources, had also turned their lives into a chronic crisis over the clock. She rarely learned her schedule more than three days before the start of a workweek, plunging her into urgent logistical puzzles over who would watch the boy. Months after starting the job she moved out of her aunt’s home, in part because of mounting friction over the erratic schedule, which the aunt felt was also holding her family captive. Ms. Navarro’s degree was on indefinite pause because her shifting hours left her unable to commit to classes. She needed to work all she could, sometimes counting on dimes from the tip jar to make the bus fare home. If she dared ask for more stable hours, she feared, she would get fewer work hours over all.

An excellent, if damning, piece on the hardships associated with ‘flexible’ scheduling and low-paying jobs.


Casey Johnston!: I have this seminar I’m running for free for college students and I’m…


I have this seminar I’m running for free for college students and I’m going to show them this picture before we start. It’s a picture of someone graduating from college. You can’t tell, but you can guess that they’re probably $150,000 in debt. Written on the top of their mortarboard with masking tape it says, “Hire me.” The thing about the picture that’s pathetic, beyond the notion that you need to spam the audience at graduation with a note saying you’re looking for a job, is that you went $150,000 in debt and spent four years of your life so someone else could pick you. That’s ridiculous. It really makes me sad to see that.

While I understand what Seth Godin is suggesting, I also think that it’s largely reflective of his incredibly privileged position. When people are leaving schools with that amount of debt, with knowledge that they want to start a family and not suffer (total) financial ruin by starting something and failing, then those individuals may quite reasonably want full-time regular employment.

Godin’s most common response is that ‘such employment doesn’t really exist anymore – so adapt!’ While it’s a great response for some people who are willing to take on heightened risks in their lives it isn’t one that ought to be imposed on all individuals. Moreover, the thought that it’s “ridiculous” to want to be picked and work at a meaningful job and launch a career with a business that is compatible with your training and expertise shouldn’t make anyone sad. Instead, what should be “sad” is that such aspirations are less and less likely to be realized as companies abandon long-term commitment to employees and instead harden their ‘flexible’ hiring strategies that facilitate profits at the expense of human life.

Valve’s Handbook for New Employees

Valve’s Handbook for New Employees has made its way to the Internet. While such handbooks are normally incredibly dull – I mean, really, who hasn’t almost fallen asleep or committed suicide to escape reading one? – Valve’s is excellent.

It lays out corporate culture, modes of engaging with other employees, identifying tasks worth doing, and how the company actually functions. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and is scattered with jokes. Valve has, effectively, created a whimsical and useful document that embraces employees. Employers could learn from what Valve has done.


On Hiring Hackers

Kevin McArthur has a response to firms who are demanding highly credentialed security staff: stop it!

Much of his argument surrounds problems with the credentialing process. He focuses on the fact that the time spent achieving an undergrad, MA, and set of professional certifications leaves prospective hires woefully out-of-date and unprepared to address existing security threats.

I recognize the argument but think that it’s somewhat of a strawman: there is nothing in a credentialing process forcing individuals to solely focus on building and achieving their credentials. Indeed, many of the larger companies that I’m familiar with hire hackers as employees and then offer them opportunities to pursue credentials on their own time, on the company dime, over the course of their employment. Many take advantage of this opportunity. This serves two purposes: adds ‘book smarts’ to a repertoire of critical thinking habits and makes the company ‘stickier’ to the employee because of the educational benefits of working for the company.

Under the rubric of enabling education opportunities for staff you can get security talent that is very good and also happens to be well educated. It’s a false dichotomy to suggest that you can have either ‘book smarts’ or ‘real world smarts’: there are lots of people with both. They don’t tend to be right out of university or high school, but they are out there.

What’s more important, and what I think the real focus of the article is meant to be, is that relying on credentials instead of work accomplished is the wrong way of evaluating prospective security staff hires. On that point, we entirely agree.