Academia has been (justifiably) subject to much criticism when it comes to staff wellbeing; high workloads, precarious contracts, individualism, discrimination, and bullying are just a few of the many problems (Morrish, 2019; Morrish & Priaulx, 2020). For doctoral students, depression and anxiety have been argued to be ‘the norm’ in the UK (Woolston, 2021). What can we do to transform the higher education sector, and how can we do it without burning ourselves out further?
In my experience of university employment, I’ve encountered serious toxicity, but also extreme generosity. My academic success is a direct consequence of support and academic kindness from my colleagues and my community. Indeed, some of my own research points to academic kindness as a key predictor of wellbeing in higher education (Holliman et al., 2019).
Within every university, there are people who make a difference. Sometimes we are fortunate enough to find networks beyond our own institution which introduce us to supportive individuals and communities. #LTHEchat is a prime example; my own Professors in Preparation community is another; and I have encountered many like-minded souls across the university learning and teaching community, including through the Association of National Teaching Fellows. Sometimes, we have to look beyond our immediate surroundings to find our “tribe”. In psychology, there is a growing body of research that shows that connecting with people who share our identity can act as a ‘social cure’ for poor wellbeing and mental ill health (e.g. Wakefield et al., 2022). Who is your community?
What can we do to be ‘that’ person, the one who makes a difference? Firstly, I believe we need to look after own health and wellbeing, managing our boundaries (including our workloads), and connecting with those who support us. If we’re psychologically well, we are in a better place to support others.
However, it’s not a case of simply ‘paying back’ what we receive from others. You may have seen US movie, Pay It Forward. The idea is that for every favour we receive, we do a new favour for three different people. These good deeds ‘snowball’ and spread beyond our own spheres of influence.
I suggest that a ‘pay it forward’ approach is one way to create a culture of academic kindness. I’ve found lots of ways to put it into practice. Having been supported by a peer mentor to apply for Readership, I worked with like-minded colleague Debbie Lock and others to create Professors in Preparation, so that others can receive similar mentoring. When being asked to undertake high-profile work for which I don’t have time (managing my workload!), I recommend junior colleagues who have appropriate expertise, to raise them up. I’ve lost count of the favours I’ve received, so I look for as many opportunities as I can find to ‘pay it forward’. I hope that in doing so, I’m helping to change academia for the better, culturally, and at sector level.
What opportunities do you have to ‘pay it forward’?
Holliman, A., Hulme, J.A., & Wilson-Smith, K. (2019). Transition and adaptability in educational and organisational contexts. Psychology Teaching Review, 25 (1), 4-11.
Hulme, J.A. & Lock, D. (2020). Professors in Preparation: Supporting 21st century professorial leaders. SRHEblog.com. Available at: https://srheblog.com/2020/04/02/professors-in-preparation-supporting-21st-century-professorial-leaders/.
Morrish, L. (2019). Pressure vessels: The epidemic of poor mental health among higher education staff. HEPi Occasional Paper 20. Available at: https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2019/05/23/new-report-shows-big-increase-in-demand-for-mental-health-support-among-higher-education-staff/.
Morrish, L. & Priaulx (2020). Pressure vessels II: An update on mental health among higher education staff in the UK. HEPi Policy Note 2023. Available at: https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2020/04/30/pressure-vessels-ii-an-update-on-mental-health-among-higher-education-staff-in-the-uk/.
Wakefield, J.R.H., Kellezi, B., Stevenson, C., et al. (2022). Social prescribing as ‘social cure’: A longitudinal study of the health benefits of social connectedness within a social prescribing pathway. Journal of Health Psychology, 27 (2), 386-396. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1359105320944991.
Woolston, C. (2021). Depression and anxiety ‘the norm’ for UK PhD students. Nature Career News. doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-03761-3.
Julie Hulme is a Professor of Psychology Education in the School of Social Sciences at Nottingham Trent University. She is a National Teaching Fellow, and a Principal Fellow of the HEA. A Chartered Psychologist, Julie applies psychological theories and research methods to developing inclusive teaching and learning in higher education, and is particularly proud of her work with disabled student researchers to improve accessibility, inclusion, and belonging through transformation of university policy and practice. In 2018, Julie co-founded the Professors in Preparation network, providing a community of learning for teaching- and practice-focused academics to support each other in career development and progression. She actively champions the scholarship of teaching and learning and those who undertake it across the sector, and has worked with several universities to develop cultures, communities, and promotions criteria that reward both scholarship and citizenship. Julie sees herself as a “positive disruptor”, challenging the status quo and promoting kindness among staff and students in higher education. You can follow Julie on Twitter @JulieH_Psyc, and read more about her work at her blog, https://higherpsyched.home.blog/.
LINK to the wakelet