Where has the joy of working in Australian universities gone?
As universities engage in the current round of enterprise bargaining, it is timely to remember the importance of joy at work. It seems everywhere you turn workers are walking away from their jobs. Industries like hospitality and health have been hit particularly hard. But no sector is exempt, including higher education.
What’s causing staff turnover? Long hours, low pay, negative workplace cultures, job insecurity, lack of recognition, no work-life balance and the impacts of COVID are all leading people to reassess their lives.
The harsh and unrelenting demands on employees have stripped away joy at work. This is also true for academics. As one told us:
“It’s becoming more and more difficult to feel joyful in this workplace.”
What do academics say about their work?
We interviewed 35 academic staff across the five Western Australia universities for a research project. We wanted to know how they experienced working in a university during pandemic lockdowns and their aftermath – a time of crisis, change and complexity.
Our participants represented a broad range of disciplines and levels of academic leadership. They discussed the work environment, university management during the pandemic, the challenges they and colleagues encountered, and how they coped.
Participants described their universities as being exploitative, oppressive, toxic and fiscally driven. They felt themselves being dehumanised and demoralised by management. Most reported experiencing feelings associated with burnout, including anxiety, cynicism, depression and exhaustion.
One academic observed:
“Colleagues are tired. They are burnt-out. That’s my observation. There’s a lot of burnout. But they’re still going.”
So what gives them joy?
Joy at work is linked with employee well-being and good mental health, and is often used as a proxy for employee engagement. We asked: “What brings you joy at work?”
Some find little joy at work. The “craziness of university decisions and processes”, “the absurdity”, the conflicting demands and constant institutional change have led to them losing interest, spirit and hope.
However, most participants said “my students”, “my teaching”, “my research” and “my colleagues” give them joy.
The joy-student dynamic is about a sense of purpose associated with seeing students learn, grow and succeed. It’s building the future in a deeply personal and gratifying way. One participant explained:
“I said to my colleagues, I feel like I got my soul back because I had that exposure to the students again.”
Our participants expressed the joy-teaching dynamic through the emphatic words of love: “I love teaching!” It’s knowing and being known by your students. It’s connection. It’s the feeling of knowing you are making a difference. Participants described this experience as “nourishing”, “rewarding” and “sustaining”.
The joy-research dynamic is expressed through the language of “passion”. It is the joy of exploration, discovery and dissemination. It’s the “agency” and satisfaction of developing research and seeing it make a difference. It’s the relationships built with doctoral students and seeing them succeed.
“My research focuses on consumer neuroscience. That’s my passion. The joy of it is we’re actually developing new research and supervising students.”
Participants expressed the joy-colleague dynamic through words of belonging – collegiality, solidarity and unity.
“We cry together, we laugh together, we support and motivate each other.”
Why is the joy of work being lost?
All of these joys, not just one or two, have become areas of diminishing returns. Academics are working at optimum capacity but unhappily so.
University responses to COVID have compounded their transformation by the ideologies, policies and practices of neoliberalism, economic rationalisation and managerialism over the past two decades. Academics reported feeling alienated, disenfranchised and exploited.
The pivot to online learning, bigger classes and increased workload demands have decreased academics’ opportunities to build connections and deliver quality in the education they provide. Research workload allocations are being cut, yet research productivity expectations have increased. Job-shedding, centralisation of services and organisational restructuring add to the burden on academics, increasing the psychological demands on them.
Due to greater demands on their personal resources, most participants reported they have less time to connect with colleagues and family. But they also felt increasingly disconnected from their university. The majority said they were looking to exit the sector or wanted to leave.
“Everybody’s in the same boat. Everybody’s feeling extremely anxious, very unhappy, demoralised, stressed out. Many people are at breaking point. I don’t think many people can take much more of this. So people will, if they can, leave the profession. People with options of getting other jobs or retiring early will do so.”
Academic staff are burnt-out. They are stoic, resilient and hopeful, but the things in their work that give them joy are ever-diminishing.
Our research highlights the toll on academics as they struggle to meet the increased demands and expectations imposed on them. The university structures and services that support them are being stripped away and the activities they find joy in eroded.
To manage, many sacrifice their work-life balance, withdraw or isolate themselves. They invest less in their students, teaching and/or research. This causes them to feel they must compromise on their personal and professional standards and values.
It doesn’t have to be this way
The antithesis to burnout is engagement – joy at work. Successful organisations navigate a similarly competitive landscape, but their employees feel valued and the workplace culture is positive. If universities follow these examples, their employees will stay, productivity will be high and the great resignation avoided.
The challenge for Australian universities in this post-COVID round of enterprise bargaining is to ensure their staff can still experience joy in their work. That will assure a sustainable legacy for those who follow.
The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of the two other members of our research team: Professor John Williams, Director, Graduate Research, Curtin School of Education, and Associate Professor Scott Fitzgerald, Curtin Business School.