Drought Days: Reflections on Work in Troubling Times by David Abbott

 I write this at the dimming of a heatwave day. In the mornings I feel utterly discombobulated, a bit sick and a bit dizzy. A mix of medications and general gloom. The sunshine and excessive heat are of course hugely problematic in terms of current concerns about climate change. And the light is better for my morale than the inevitable long months of a grey, Welsh winter. Even at this time of day, my thinking is not very efficient. Reviewer 2 would definitely say that this piece lacks structure and clarity. It’s true. But here is what I have to say anyway. 

Sometimes a Job is Just Not a Good Fit 

I had a big leadership role once as Head of School. Long story short, I thought it might be bad for me, but I also felt like I could do it with a human touch and try and protect some things that mattered. About a year and a half into the role and I go to a psychotherapist for an expensive fifty-minute hour as I’m at the end of my emotional tether. I tell her about it: the night sweats and the feeling of being besieged and frightened. She says: “I’m not sure I can really help you. I don’t really want to give you coping mechanisms or help you be more resilient. If you can, I think you should just stop doing this job.”

I file this away for a while. The next Christmas morning I am unwell with low key, physical symptoms of my body shouting at me to pay attention to myself. At first, all I can think about is a member of staff facing the end of a fixed-term contract and how that precarity will be affecting their holiday break. This then strikes me as important but not something I should be thinking about when I’m supposed to be enjoying myself at Christmas. Suddenly, I am struck by revelatory clarity. I say to myself – ‘If the Vice Chancellor himself came to my door now and told me that I needed to pull myself together and just get on with the job I would still say, ‘no’. I would say that I needed to stop.’ It was not that there ever any chance of the VC doing this. I just needed to puncture some of my worst fears about being a failure, being unreliable, being less than fully competent. 

And so, I quit the role. It was hard but the world does not end. I was not sacked or demoted. Maybe my ‘capital’ in the wider university is harmed, maybe I am the ‘guy who couldn’t hack being Head of School’, but I just can’t care about this. Sometimes protecting yourself is more important than any accolades.

Living with Anxiety, Change & Inertia

I think back on this during another, as I like to say, “wobbly time.” At the moment, I am off work with anxiety and depression. I slightly saw it coming and slightly didn’t. On the day I knew it needed to be attended to, I had tried and failed to do a relatively simple task of reading and commenting on a draft article. I simply couldn’t do it, though I kept at it all day until I, literally, wept. Lots of things have coalesced to bring me to this place and only some are related to work. I only offer these up in case they help or resonate with you. 

I have made some ego-based work choices that all came back to bite me. I said yes to some things that I knew were of questionable value but were slightly seductive by virtue of their “profile”. All of these things ending up unravelling for me. None of them contained the ingredients that made me decide to be an academic with a focus on societal change and social justice. I was in danger of developing ‘notions’ as my Irish family might say, accusingly – getting ‘ideas above my station’ as others might call it. I will learn from this. A great colleague of mine once gave a keynote about the pressure in academia to be ‘metrics-wo/man’ – striving, sometimes under pressure – for the next esteem indicator, the next CV boost, the next ‘win’ and how these only very rarely coincided with the main reason most academics go to work. 

I am in something of a career drift a decade on from becoming a professor. What do I do with next decade – more of the same? (Though, see below.) The autonomy of the job that many academics enjoy also leaves me feeling a bit self-employed and dislocated. Most of the time nobody really knows (cares?) what I’m doing. I don’t know if this is as it should be for a sense of purpose and belonging. It feels like a privileged kind of a problem to have I know. I lack a steer – more grants, more PhD students, more supporting early career researchers to get their own grants, more externally-facing kind of work, more focus on impact? All of the above? I hear some professors say that what they want most is to be left alone by their institution to get on with their research. I get that, but on the other hand, being left alone often means other people are doing either the admin and leadership jobs that need to be done – or the jobs that no one especially wants to do. Plus, I want to add something to the sustainable, collective good – certainly at School/Departmental level. I felt like I knew what I needed to do to get to this stage in my career – I’m not very sure what to do next.  

My applied research intersects social care and disability studies. For more than a decade we’ve lived with political rulers with no significant interest in either social care or the needs of disabled people. In fact, there has mostly been a continued litany of harm. In this context, most or all of the research I have done and which I read in my field can feel, well, a bit pointless. We preach to the disenfranchised choir. We leap, as instructed, from research grant to research grant but to what end? My father, who thinks that only manual labour has any worth or value says to me, “Yes, but what’s the point of all this research? What difference does it make?” Although I put up a good defence for research in general it’s sometimes hard to come up with a good answer. I try to work in ways in which the research process itself empowers folks who are involved with and the subject of my research. But in these years of austerity and right-wing political leaders in the UK, social progress for oppressed and marginalised groups has if anything, gone into reverse. Whilst the brunt of that is quite obviously borne by people at the ‘sharp-end’, it’s a source of frustration, contemplation and soul searching for the research community as well.

Working through the Covid-19 pandemic and for what has felt like year after year of industrial action has been challenging in so many ways. Strikes (which I support) in particular made me angry but also very sad. I found them to take an emotional toll that bore no relation to any suggestions that I/we were somehow committed to striking in some ideologically lazy or blasé fashion.

Holding On

Some days my job is so wonderful I cannot believe it. A first-gen Uni working class guy getting paid to do interesting things with wonderful people and delightful students. My colleagues are amazing. As Covid-19 emerged, I watched in awe as, amidst all our personal bewilderment at living and dying in a global pandemic, colleagues found it in themselves to make radical changes to how we taught and researched. Some of those that did the most, had/have the least: early career researchers, fixed-term contract staff, support staff, junior lecturers. Though the life of the university in covid-times rarely caught wider public or media attention, these colleagues were heroes to me. Applauded but mostly unrewarded. 

To feel broken as I do right now, is for me personally, to inhabit a space of suffering but also learning. I glimpse the experience of folks who are denied space and security in the academy, of folks who would not have the sick pay that I do, or the funds to pay for fifty-minute hours. I see that negotiating an episode of poor mental health is tricky for me even with the privileges I have as a white, non-disabled, cis man. It must be a core part of my job to support and speak up for and with those in much more precarious and oppressive situations than mine. I do not have a perky ending to my blog. I do not have a list of tips. I am trying to get better and doing things that are actually “good for me” (sigh). If you are in a rocky boat and your days have more shade than light, then I wish you well and hope for better times ahead. 

David Abbott

David Abbott is a Professor of Social Policy at the University of Bristol, UK. He lives up a hill in Wales with his boyfriend and their rescue dog.