Irreplaceable time

Part one: the hamster wheel

The majority of Australians working extra hours or hours outside of normal work hours do so in order to meet the expectations of their job. Almost 60 per cent of respondents report this, with 45 per cent saying that this extra work is necessary often or sometimes. This represents 5.2 million Australian workers who are working extra hours to keep their workload under control and on target.

Prue Cameron and Richard Denniss, “Hard to Get a Break“, for the Australia Institute, November 2013

It’s the crazy time in Australian universities. Research grants are announced, thousands of student grades are being shovelled into student management systems, next year’s business plans are being drafted, graduation ceremony planning is at its fraughtest, and northern hemisphere visitors are showing up to give talks because they’re bundling the southern hemisphere conference season with side trips here and there to make it all more tax deductible.

Last week, the fifth annual Go Home On Time Day campaign pointed out quietly that if their survey extrapolates over the whole population, then half the Australian workforce are unhappy with the hours they work.  Both the overworked and the underemployed are becoming frantic in this economy of the hamster wheel.  2.8 million Australians may need more working hours than they can piece together from casual, seasonal employment, just to make ends meet; and both casual and permanent employees are now suffering from the culture of unpaid overtime:

More than half (54 per cent) of survey respondents report that working extra hours without pay is expected or not expected but not discouraged in their workplace. More than one in five (22 per cent) respondents say that it is expected and more than one in three respondents (32 per cent) say their workplace does not expect but does not discourage it. In other words, the practice and culture of the workplace make this the norm. This normative pressure is felt more by women .

Cameron and Denniss,  p 11

I’ve been thinking about this because on Go Home on Time Day this year, I was sitting in a surgeon’s office. It turns out that I have breast cancer, and I found out that very day.  And here’s the thing: I first thought about getting something checked out exactly 12 months ago. I found time at the end of 2012 to take a day off work, got a referral from my GP, and then the vague unease passed. So I didn’t chase it up.

Over a busy year being both a full-time worker and a parent to three school-age children, I noticed now and then that the unease came back, and I fought with it in the middle of the night, along with to-do lists and unsent emails and ideas for projects and the anxieties of my co-workers and all of my misgivings about working for an institution whose driving mission is to be in the top 1% of world universities, which seems to me as shallow and demoralising an idea as any I’ve heard since I started working in higher education.

And now here we are.

Part two: irreplaceable time

I have breast cancer. A week ago, I had breast cancer, and the week before that, and the week before that. Maybe five, eight, even ten years ago, the first bad cell split inside me, secretly. But I didn’t know. This is how I arrived at knowing.

Xeni Jardin, Diagnosis

It’s been just over a week since the Moment. A routine visit, friendly chit chat about Christmas shopping, and then suddenly a quiet chill in the room, professionals looking at each other but not at me, an emergency biopsy, a result. I’ve had a thyroid scan, a chest X-ray, a CT scan, and tomorrow I’m having a bone scan.

And through all of this I’ve been thinking back to a planning day that I recently sat through, that for all sorts of banal reasons left me feeling completely exasperated with the corporate culture of team-building that is so reckless with people’s time and trust. I followed the instructions, more or less, while thinking about how much I’d like to quit my job, and the thing that went round and round in my head as we were hustled through a series of exercises designed to show how perfectly team building is created from the will to win, was this:  you don’t have my consent to use my remaining time in this way.

Afterwards I puzzled about this a bit: why had it come to me so strongly that it was important to speak back to this kind of dispiriting and divisive activity, however well-intentioned it might be?

I’ve come to this conclusion: I really have a problem with the culture of work in higher education. Having this diagnosis doesn’t make me special, because it doesn’t make me differently mortal than anyone else.  We are neither vampires nor zombies, whatever the craze for playing with these ideas: we are humans, and we are all here together for a very short time, historically speaking. And so that being the case, the question facing us all is this: what do we do about work?

What do we do about the way in which overwork is the price that is now demanded for participating at all? What do we do about the thousands of higher education workers consigned to underwork that prevents them from making their irreplaceably good contribution to the mission of universities or the communities that they care about? Do we really believe that our colleagues in the precarity are there because they deserve it? Do we really think sustainable and healthy workplaces will result from us giving up all of our evenings and weekends just to keep up with the standards set by the most driven, or those with the fewest external ties or interests?

If we have created a culture in which only those who are most single-minded about work are applauded, promoted and respected, we have made something whose capacity for harm is pervasive and long-term. A couple of weeks ago I listened to a senior executive colleague talk in public about how our children value and respect the things we women achieve at work. I don’t disagree that our children recognise that we pour their time into the institutions we work for, but my three daughters are telling me clearly that they experience this as harmful to them and harmful to me. And for those of us who work as educators, this is the at-all-costs behaviour we’re modelling to students who will graduate into an economy that is fuelled on the empty-tank fumes of unpaid labour.

I’ve been thinking for several weeks about a comment Richard Hall made on Twitter, about the need for courage in higher education, not hope. After debating this with him a bit, and taking a while to reflect on my own situation, I’ve come to think he’s right. Hope is the alibi for inaction: what we need is the courage to put work itself at risk.

So this is the choice I’m making, in this irreplaceable time.

These have been part of my thinking this week:

Thanks to Pat Lockley who is far more sentimental than you might think, this lovely video has been as good a metaphor as any for how things feel:

And finally, personal thanks to Agent Zed, a stranger I know only from Twitter, who answered all of my frantic questions about cancer diagnosis while I was sitting in the surgeon’s waiting room and then checked in afterwards to see how things went.
Note: This is a longer than usual post, that was once much shorter. For the first time since I began blogging two years ago, I published something entirely accidentally before it was written. So if you came by this through an email subscription, I’m so sorry — that was only half the story, and as a result it’s been rapidly edited since then.  I guess this is one of the odd symptoms of trying to process the whole situation.  It’s finished now.  KB
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