As universities enter the current round of corporate negotiations, it’s time to remember the importance of joy in the workplace. It seems like everywhere you turn, workers are walking away from their jobs. Sectors such as hospitality and healthcare have been particularly hard hit. But no sector is exempt, including higher education.
What causes staff turnover? Long working hours, low pay, negative work cultures, job insecurity, lack of recognition, lack of work-life balance and the impacts of COVID are causing people to re-evaluate their life.
The harsh and relentless demands placed on employees have stripped away the joy at work. This is also true for academics. As one of them told us:
“It’s getting harder and harder to feel happy in this workplace.”
What do academics say about their work?
We interviewed 35 academic staff at the five universities in Western Australia for a research project. We wanted to know how they had experienced working at a university during the pandemic closures and their aftermath – a time of crisis, change and complexity.
Our participants represented a wide range of disciplines and levels of academic leadership. They discussed the work environment, university management during the pandemic, the challenges they and their colleagues faced and how they coped.
Participants described their universities as exploitative, oppressive, toxic, and tax-driven. They felt dehumanized and demoralized by management. Most reported experiencing feelings associated with burnout, including anxiety, cynicism, depression and exhaustion.
An academic observed:
“Colleagues are tired. They are burned. This is my observation. There is a lot of burnout. But they continue.
So what gives them joy?
Joy at work is linked to employee well-being and good mental health, and is often used as an indicator of employee engagement. We asked, “What brings you joy at work?”
Some find little joy in work. The “madness of university decisions and processes”, “the absurdity”, the contradictory demands and the constant institutional changes made them lose interest, spirit and hope.
However, most participants said that “my students”, “my teaching”, “my research” and “my colleagues” give them joy.
The joy-student dynamic relates to a sense of purpose associated with seeing students learn, grow, and succeed. It is building the future in a deeply personal and rewarding way. One participant explained:
“I told my colleagues, I feel like I got my soul back because I was exposed to the students again.”
Our participants expressed the dynamics of teaching joy through the emphatic words of love: “I love to teach! It is knowing and being known by your students. It’s the connection. It’s the feeling of knowing that you are making a difference. Participants described this experience as “nourishing”, “rewarding” and “supportive”.
The research-joy dynamic is expressed through the language of “passion”. It is the joy of exploration, discovery and dissemination. It’s the “agency” and the satisfaction of developing research and seeing it make a difference. It is the relationships built with doctoral students and seeing them succeed.
“My research focuses on consumer neuroscience. This is my passion. The joy is that we develop new research and supervise students.
The 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 lost?
All of those joys, not just one or two, have become areas of diminishing returns. Academics are working at their peak capacity, but unfortunately.
Universities’ responses to COVID have compounded their transformation by the ideologies, policies and practices of neoliberalism, economic rationalization and managerialism over the past two decades. Academics said they felt alienated, disenfranchised and exploited.
The pivot to online learning, larger class sizes and increased workloads have reduced opportunities for scholars to connect and deliver quality education. Search workload allocations are reduced, but search productivity expectations have increased. Job cuts, centralization of services and organizational restructuring increase the burden on academics, increasing the psychological demands on them.
Due to greater strain on their personal resources, most participants reported having less time to communicate with colleagues and family. But they also felt increasingly disconnected from their university. The majority said they were looking to leave the area or wanted to leave.
“Everyone is in the same boat. Everyone feels extremely anxious, very unhappy, demoralized, stressed. Many people are at breaking point. I don’t think many people can handle much more. So people will, if they can, leave the profession. People who have the ability to get other jobs or retire early will.
The academic staff is exhausted. They are stoic, resilient and hopeful, but there are fewer and fewer things about their work that bring them joy.
Our research highlights the toll for academics as they struggle to meet the growing demands and expectations placed on them. The university structures and services that support them are stripped away and the activities they enjoy are eroded.
To cope, 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 that they have to compromise on their personal and professional standards and values.
It doesn’t have to be that way
The antithesis of burnout is commitment – joy at work. Successful organizations navigate a similar 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 major resignations avoided.
The challenge for Australian universities in this round of post-COVID corporate negotiations is to ensure that their staff can still experience joy in their work. This will ensure a lasting legacy for those who follow.
The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of two other members of our research team: Professor John Williams, Director of Graduate Research, Curtin School of Education, and Associate Professor Scott Fitzgerald, Curtin Business School.