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Higher Education ballots – Four Fights – say no to spiralling workloads! 

Spiralling workloads have been an endemic problem in higher education for several years, made only worse by the pandemic. The average working week in higher education is now above 50 hours, with 29% of academics averaging more than 55 hours. In December 2020, 78% of UCU respondents reported an increased workload due to the pandemic.  

At the University of Southampton the situation is particularly alarming. While some other universities were hiring more staff (although often on insecure contracts), the rule last year at UoS was to not replace staff who had left through the voluntary severance scheme. Members reported dealing with exceptionally high workloads, having to pick up the work left by those who left often in the middle of the year, without notice. Staff also bore the brunt of the overnight pivot to online working and the increased pressures and demands of virtual learning.  

The workload survey conducted by your branch in June 2021 shows that only 3.3% found their workload fine, 24% manageable while 72.3% found it very high or unmanageable with many respondents noting that they had to work evenings and weekends, and some reporting up to 70-80 working hours a week. The feeling of being overwhelmed and anxious about workload was widely shared. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This unsustainable workload has consequences on the health and wellbeing of staff: many reported anxiety, depression, or panic attacks from working overtime. Some had to be signed off for several weeks for depression and anxiety. In our survey, 75% of respondents said overwork had impacted on their mental health, while around half developed neck and back pain and sight problems and a third repetitive strain injuries and weight gain.  


 

 

 

 

 

 

Loss of sleep, migraines, overall fatigue were frequently cited as symptoms of this overwork. One respondent said they cried every day for at least a week. 

Workloads affect our private lives and the quality of the work we deliver. Respondents noted that the work pressure made it difficult to ‘switch off’ and was detrimental to relations with friends, partner or children (68%). 84% of our respondents said they could not have weekends or evening completely off while 61% said they were not able to take all their annual leave. One colleague noted that they refrained from taking sick leave because they knew there was no process to cover their work and that the burden would fall on already overworked colleagues. The situation is even worse for staff on insecure contracts who don’t get paid annual leave or sick time. 


 

 

 

 

 

 

Overwork also makes us less efficient and creative in our work. Over four fifths of our respondents said that overwork did not give them ‘thinking time’ to reflect on their practice, be creative, read or get proper training. Many note that they can’t keep up with the changes of procedures within the institution. For colleagues on balanced contracts, research is often the first thing that is sacrificed when workloads are too high, while for others it is professional development and long-term career planning that get dropped. They note that things are often rushed, that they feel disorganised and that it lowers their mood. Basically, staff feel that they are mostly fire-fighting and have no time to ‘reflect, discuss and share their experiences’. ‘Collegiality’, understood as mentoring colleagues or taking on additional activities to be a ‘good citizen’, is also not factored in workload models. It is still important for many colleagues as shown in our survey, but done as a voluntary activity on top of their other tasks. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Your branch will take the survey results to senior management at the next Joint Negotiation Committee in November. We want them to confront the reality of high workloads at Southampton and to commit to an open discussion of the different ideas brought up by survey respondents to tackle the issue: hire more people, in particular professional services staff who play a vital role in our academic community; have a more realistic assessment of our workloads and in particular of our administrative duties; create a staff-led forum to decrease the bureaucracy; a more transparent and fair distribution of teaching load which reflects the realities of staff-student ratio; have proper working contracts for PGRs; create the conditions for staff to take leave by provisioning for parental/sick leave replacements and having enough slack in the system to allow for annual leave. 

What are we fighting for? 

We are at a breaking point and we can’t go on like this any longer. Abstaining or voting no in the Four Fights Dispute is accepting the situation. So vote yes for strike action and action short of a strike in the Four Fights dispute. By using your vote, you also give your branch the power to fight for better conditions here at Southampton. 

We want: 

  • A plan agreed with senior managers for a reduction of workloads across the board 
  • 35 hours to be the standard weekly employment contract of all HEIs 
  • Clear and transparent workload models 
  • End to austerity in terms of hiring policy 

 

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