Vote for action on workload

This post is based on the fourth and final in a series of emails sent by CUCU to members on the pay ballot that closes at noon on Wednesday June 27We strongly recommend that all members vote to reject the pay offer and in favour of industrial action.

In previous communications on the ballot we looked at key elements of the national pay demand: the headline issue of pay, the gender pay gap and casualisation. This is our final explainer, on workload. The below draws upon two sources: the HE component of UCU’s 2016 National Workload Survey  (summary report here), which was based on 12,113 responses and includes a dataset from Cambridge, and the 2017 Times Higher Education survey to which around 1450 staff in UK HE responded.

Excessive workloads in HE: a growing problem

One of UCU’s demands this year is the creation of a national framework to reduce excessive workloads and properly compensate staff for excessive hours worked. To give you a sense of the scale of the problem, UCU’s 2016 survey found that academic staff worked an average of 50.9 hours per week, with 28.5% averaging more than 55 hours per week. Academic-related staff worked an average of 42.4 hours per week. These figures are in line with the THE survey, for which 71% of UK academic respondents worked 9 hours a day or more, and 15% worked 10 or more, with added hours at weekends. 

For Cambridge, the average across all staff was a 52.8 hour working week. Most contracts don’t specify work hours, but based on 0.5 FTE contracts we obtained, the normal expectation for a full-time working week is 37 hours. This amounts to three unpaid days of work a week.  

Nationwide, excessive working hours affect staff at all levels, with remarkable homogeneity between numbers reported by academic staff at different levels of seniority and across disciplines. The figures are worst for staff on fractional contracts: staff at 0.2 and 0.3 FTE work on average over 190% of their contracted hours. This particularly impacts precarious early career staff: 57.1% of teaching assistants are employed at 0.4 FTE or less, whereas across all staff, the figure is 3.5%. Workload is also a gendered issue: women who work part time with small fractions (0.2 to 0.3 FTE) have significantly longer FTE adjusted average weekly working hours than men (73.1 hours vs. 61.2 hours at 0.2 FTE, and 79.7 hours vs. 60.9 hours at 0.3 FTE).

‘Can’t switch off’: the personal toll of high workloads

Of all staff surveyed by UCU, 65.5% reported that their workload is unmanageable at least half of the time; for almost half of these, it is unmanageable all or most of the time. This tallies with THE’s findings: 38% of UK academics work more than five hours at the weekend, and 82% work while on holiday. Moreover, only 24% of academic-related staff switch off from work “often” or “always” when they are at home; for academics this drops to an alarmingly low 6.5%.

The toll on the health and personal life of staff is explored in the THE survey, which makes for depressingly familiar reading. Around a quarter of all staff report that work negatively affects their mental health “a lot”. Workloads interfere with caring responsibilities: 60% of academics, and 40% of academic-related staff, said that they believed that they would work at least five more hours a week if they did not have any dependents. Additionally, 43% of female academics who have children say that this holds back their career “significantly” or “a great deal”. More broadly, 65% of academic-related staff say that their partner regards the hours that they work as detrimental to a healthy family life, and 62% of academics say that their partner regards their academic careers as at least a little detrimental to the quality of their relationship.

Workload increases as job profiles shift

Staff widely reported an increase in both work-hours and the intensity of work in recent years. In the UCU survey, 83.1% of academic staff and 78.9% of academic related staff reported that the pace or intensity of work has increased over the previous three years. In the THE survey, 46% of UK respondents say their work hours had increased over the past three years. This matches the more detailed UCU figures, below, which also explore the causes of these increases.

Among academic-related staff, 24.4% reported a significant increase in working hours, and a further 36.8% a slight one, over the previous three years. The main cause is the widening range of duties considered to be within their remit. Notably, 30.7% of academic-related staff reported spending significant amounts of their time doing work that is not included in their job description.

Among academic staff, 47.2% of those engaged in teaching reported a significant increase in working hours (and a further 30.9% a slight one) over the previous three years, as did 22.9% of research-only staff. This is symptomatic of a shift in HE: nationwide, teaching and research staff now spend more than double the amount of time on teaching specific activities, including examining, than they do on research. Even more alarmingly, 82.7% of teaching and research staff saw their level of departmental and general admin increase over the previous three years. Staff listed this as the most major cause for increased workload.

You can see a detailed breakdown of workload components for Cambridge here. For teaching and research staff, roughly 37% of time is spent on teaching-related activities, 26% on research-related ones, and 36% on administration. The landscape of academia in Cambridge is changing rapidly: since 2002, according to the Reporter (see here and here), numbers of academic-related staff has increased by 131%. Academic staff numbers have increased by 8%, but their duties have clearly shifted, to manage a 34% increase in postgraduate student numbers (which contrasts with a 2% increase in the undergraduate body), and a 89% increase in the number of research staff.

Excessive workloads and the intensification of work are not unchangeable facts about our working lives, and as we build our workplace, departmental and college rep network over the coming year workload will be a key issue to campaign on. But for this issue to gain traction with senior management we need national recognition from the employers that the constant extension and intensification of work cannot continue. Vote to reject the pay offer and in favour of action on workload (and on pay, casualisation and the gender pay gap). And if you’re not a member of UCU, join now!