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Elke’s Story – Diary of a Compulsive Overworker

Working to contract

A few years ago, after coming back to work after having my first child, being sleep deprived (he didn’t sleep through until he was nearly 4) and very overworked, I nearly got to the stage of a burnout. I am a lecturer at a very good university that generally treats its staff well. It’s a bit bureaucratic, perhaps – there is a constant string of forms to fill in. But otherwise this is quite a happy place to work. A happier place than many others, I would say. Nevertheless, burnout or near burnout affects quite a few of my colleagues, and it did affect me. In my case, it manifested in rage: I was angry all the time.

Thankfully, the summer came and I was able to make use of workplace counselling. But burnouts are wide-spread amongst higher education staff (Watts and Robertson, 2010). Indeed, 43% of us, a survey conducted in 2017 (Gorczynski, Hill and Rathod) indicated, showed signs of at least a mild mental disorder. In other words, in Higher Education if one person is okay, their next-door neighbour or the person that they share their office with probably isn’t.

Why are so many higher education staff suffering so much?

I don’t believe there will be one answer. Colleagues have already discussed the role that a continuous emphasis on ‘doing what we love’ impacts on our understanding of our jobs: it isn’t a job, it’s what we love, so leisure. And there is also a wide-spread culture of overwork – we all do it. But I know that when I read the news of Dr Malcom Anderson’s death, I realised that I wanted to do something. On top of the mental health crisis that we have in the higher education sector in the UK, we also have a situation of continuous underfunding of mental health services. So, I wanted to make a bit of a difference by raising money for Manchester Mind.

I wanted to do this by a) working to contract for two weeks – which in the light of my compulsive overworking will be a challenge in itself. But I also wanted to b) observe the impact of working to contract on my mental health. I will do this as a practice of mindfulness, as part of a larger practice of letting my compulsion go. And I will blog about this daily. To catch up on these blogs, or if you are willing to support the fundraiser, find me on my Just Giving page.

Today, on the first day of working to contract, I noticed just how habitual my overworking is. I constantly observed myself thinking that I could do more work tonight, once I am home. It was such a strong thought that it distracted me from rather beautiful bird song as I walked between buildings on campus today. I only heard it later, after I had slowed down as a result of a break. And I noticed how much the bird song made me feel better. Clearly, I need nature to provide me with a sense of balance. But first of all, I need to be awake to notice nature, rather than being distracted by my habitual pattern of thinking that I have to do more work. So, a first lesson has been learnt: that slowing down allows me to connect to my experience of nature which makes me feel better. That certainly is a good start.