Pity me – I’m a professor

A recent article in Forbes magazine suggested that academics face a lot less stress than most professional workers. Based on some admittedly rather slender evidence, the author reckoned that being an academic must rate as the least stressful professional career of the year. As an academic, I managed a weary smile over some of the lazy stereotypes, but otherwise found little of interest in an article, most of which was hardly news to me. What did tickle my interest was the howl of pain that followed.

Over 150 outraged academics wrote on Forbes’ website, complaining bitterly about the stresses and strains of their work. You can probably guess what most of them said. As a group, we work long hours (sixty hour weeks are common); our students are increasingly demanding; those of us who do research have to present conference papers, write for journals who may refuse our work, and spend hours drafting funding proposals that may be rejected. At key stages of our careers, we may be denied promotion or placed under pressure because we have not done these things, or have not done them successfully.

And this is not all. In a typical week, I do most of the following: write a reference or two for an ex-student or colleague; correct proofs for a paper, or provide an index for a book; read a manuscript for a publisher; attend a conference advisory committee; review a paper for a journal; answer questions from a journalist; attend a committee or two; work on a report or strategy paper; read and advise on a colleague’s grant proposal; supervise doctoral students; and, as an empirical researcher, I have to gather data, with all the practical arrangements that entails, and then find some moments of peace to analyse it. I also contribute to a learned society and a professional association.

So I understand that we do a lot of work, in fact that it never seems to stop. I ‘get it’ that rejection hurts (I could paper a large wall with letters from journals and research funders telling me my work is not good enough). I know there are deadlines (and as soon as I stop writing this, I will be putting the final touches to a research bid that is due in next week). But does this make my job stressful? And to return to the original point of the Forbes article, does it make my work more stressful than most other people’s? Hardly.

Fortunately, some serious evidence does exist. To take one example, an article in the Journal of Managerial Psychology in 2005 compared UK stress levels among twenty-six occupations. In terms of physical health symptoms that are related to stress, it placed academic researchers thirteenth; the worst stress indicators were found among ambulance drivers. Academic researchers were tenth in respect of psychological well-being, with social care staff showing the lowest levels of well-being. And academics had the sixth highest levels of job satisfaction, with prison officers coming last.

The reasons why academics fare relatively well should be obvious. In the 2005 study, six occupations consistently ranked poorly in all three indicators: ambulance workers, teachers, social care workers, customer service staff in call centres, prison officers and the police. These are jobs where you are likely to experience verbal and physical threats, a high probability of injury, lack of control, high levels of intensity combined with periods of boredom, and considerable emotional labour. The lowest stress indicators were found among school dinner supervisors, analysts and – ironically, given how they laughably justify their rewards – managing directors/directors in the private sector.

On the basis of this study, academics are neither the most stressed nor the least stressed professionals, and that sounds to me about right. We still have a lot of discretion, and we still enjoy a lot of what we do. But over time, I think it likely that working in higher education has become more stressful for more people in the last twenty years, if not for all of us. This is unsurprising, as while higher education instsitutions have been cushioned from the worst excesses of managerialism and resource-scarcity, they face similar pressures to other public services.

I also think that younger and newer staff experience more demanding expectations than my generation did, and I know that in most countries junior staff will probably include more women and minority groups. And overall, the salary differences between academics and other professions have declined.

It seems even more likely that job pressures will intensify in the future. Three main factors suggest this may be the case: (1) new types of institution will be offering more and more higher education programmes, and their employees will not be traditional academics; (2) economic globalisation will intensity the social expectations on universities to help deliver higher competitiveness; and (3) political globalisation will sharpen pressures on research-led institutions to elbow their way into the world premier league.

So I am not complacent, and I do not argue that we all live in a cosy, cosseted ivory tower. But I do suggest that we do ourselves no favours by indulging in hyperbole and self-pity, nor by pleading that we are worse off than other professions – which anyway is surely a particularly self-deluding form of divide and rule.


You can find the Forbes article here (but be warned that their website can be very clunky): http://www.forbes.com/sites/susanadams/2013/01/03/the-least-stressful-jobs-of-2013/