Let’s Talk About Precarity (2/4) The impact of precarity on wellbeing and mental health

Let’s begin this post with an obvious point, but one which needs repeating: precarious employment, in any industry, has a tangible impact on our wellbeing. The FHN Perspectives on Precarity survey (2017) indicated that unstable employment and its impact on our welfare is a particularly pertinent issue for those seeking an academic career post-PhD. Our survey respondents all reported a negative impact on their general wellbeing and/or health, from low-level anxiety about the source of their next income, through to more debilitating effects on mental and/or physical health.

In this blog post we explore some of the material effects of being on a short-term contract and some suggestions for both individuals to help manage their situation. Our respondents also suggest best practice for institutions to support the wellbeing of temporary staff (and by extension students, too!).

Patchwork employment

At the very least, the uncertainty of ‘what comes next’ is a challenging issue for individuals to face. As one respondent shared, ‘The very idea of being on a short-term contract is less jarring than the insecurity of what comes next. Not know[ing] whether there is a future after this contract has been difficult and has made it impossible to concentrate on anything other than the short-term future. I have become anxious about small details in a way I had never been before.’

Many postgrads and ECRs have built up a patchwork of employment, supplementing hourly-paid teaching with other part-time work. This in itself has a knock-on effect on wellbeing: ‘Not having a stable monthly income means I constantly worry whether I’m earning enough. The lack of pay outside of term time also means I have to keep up additional work throughout the whole year […] During term time, I work constantly, telling myself that it’s only for a limited period.’ Others agree: ‘I am stressed and tired because I have to juggle full-time employment outside of academia with writing papers and job applications in the evening, leaving little time for a social life, staying abreast of the latest literature and, most importantly, sleep.’

Health concerns

A number of our respondents have engaged in treatment for their health: ‘My health has been affected badly at points. Last year I had to undergo quite intensive treatment for depression and anxiety. This was not purely down to the nature of my job contract, but being poorly-paid and uncertain about whether the contract would be renewed at the end of the year was an overwhelming source of worry. It is difficult to plan anything in the medium or long term as I’m unsure as to whether I will have to move elsewhere to find another job; and not having any money of course severely restricts my ability to socialise.’

Precarity does not just affect us as individuals, but also shapes our personal lives. Many emphasized how key the support of an understanding partner (whether or not that partner is a fellow academic) can be: both for financial stability and for offering pastoral support. But even with a dedicated support network, precarity takes its toll, as for one respondent who summarised the ‘undoubtedly negative effects on my primary relationship with my partner: arguing, but also less time to spend together’. On the other hand, those not in a stable relationship may suffer a comparative disadvantage without this important source of emotional and perhaps financial support. Admittedly it can work both ways where those in a relationship see their academic job options limited by geography.

The toll of travelling

Nearly all our contributors mentioned the importance of mobility in progressing up the academic career ladder. Whether it is commuting long distances on a daily basis, living away from family and friends or continuing in a flat share, constantly moving around puts additional strains on individuals and their relationships. Ultimately such instability prevents long-term planning: ‘I haven’t been able to build a family life as I am too poorly-paid and I can’t be sure of living in the same town for long: I live in a shared house and could not think seriously about moving in with my partner (also an ECR) as it is too expensive and our situations are too uncertain.’ Some, however, feel the compromise is too great: ‘The impact hasn’t been too bad because I decided a few years ago that my relationship and becoming a parent were ultimately more important priorities than an academic career.’

What can be done?

The first observation from our respondents concerns the visibility of the impact of precarity on the part of institutions and line managers. Many ECRs already feel they have a pretty good peer-support network; indeed, the FHN aims to promote and support solidarity between those in their early careers. Most ECRs seek a permanent contract and economic stability. They do not thrive on unstable work and an uncertain future: they suffer from it, and often greatly. A heightened acknowledgement of the impact of precarity on wellbeing on the part of departments needs to go hand-in-hand with the implementation of genuinely helpful, practical initiatives. Those on short-term contracts would value free and prompt counselling, classes to focus on wellbeing, and services that are open and actively sign-posted to all staff, not just those on permanent contracts. It is also worth noting that many university counselling services are open to staff as well as students. Occupational health is another avenue of support available from institutions outside of departments.

Suggestions for best practice

We asked our respondents what changes they would like to see, based on their experiences in their home institutions. We’ll finish this post with the words of our respondents:

• ‘This [wellbeing and support] should be at the front of the agenda for managers/HR when hiring people on precarious contracts; they should ensure that institutional structures include all employees.’

• ‘Wellbeing and [mental] health should be an intrinsic part of the PhD and any subsequent job induction process. Jobs should be created and employees managed with specific regard to the impact that the job may have on the health of the ECR. And if ECRs were more canny/had more energy, I suspect that quite a few of them could probably really take their institutions/employers to task in court for their inattention to their safety, leading to health problems.’

• ‘[Some universities] offer three years Research Associate status post-PhD. I’m not sure what it exactly entails, but wider adoption of something similar might help people feel more secure.’

• ‘I’m not sure – clearly an end to short-term contracts or the promise of a permanent job would help, but that is a dream for us all! Perhaps temporary teaching staff could meet key members of team-taught courses who could help ease concerns, including sharing lecture slides and even notes to ease the burden.’

• ‘It sounds obvious but if the pay went up a little and the contracts were slightly longer this would do a lot to alleviate the various pressures on ECRs; I’m also not convinced that it would be difficult for institutions to do these things. The contract that I am on has been renewed once and is likely to be renewed again—it doesn’t seem outrageous to suggest that it could have been offered as a two- or three-year post in the first place: this would have fostered a greater sense of security and meant that I was even more keen to invest in my teaching. The pay is *very* low, less than half the starting salary of a school teacher and a third or a quarter of what permanent staff at the same institution are paid. It seems reasonable to suggest that the pay should go up, which would have the added effect of letting ECRs know that they are valued and preventing them from having to undertake paid work outside of their teaching to support themselves.’

• ‘While I feel the issue is structural and that the main changes can only be implemented from above, union support is necessary (and already exists) as well as more informal forms of support.’

• ‘Having members of staff who are responsible for mentoring/checking in on early career scholars. Putting new employees in contact with any existing networks for early career scholars.’

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Sarah Wood and Ellen Crabtree would like to thank all the respondents who took part in the survey for candidly sharing their experiences.

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