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Mass redundancies left academics with ‘survivors guilt’

Tenured academics feel exploited, trapped in their jobs and experience a sense of ‘survivor's guilt’ from seeing their colleagues being made redundant during COVID-19, a survey has shown.

Researchers from Curtin University and Murdoch University spoke with 35 full-time academics and faculty staff across five West Australian universities.

The findings, published as part of a collaborative research project, found the majority wished to leave their jobs or exit the higher education sector altogether.

“A lot of people feel like they're trapped because they look across the sector and the grass isn't any greener anywhere else,” lead author Craig Whitsed told Campus Review.

“They don't see conditions becoming better within the institution, the demands seem to be ever present, so if they could get out, they would.”

During 2021, nearly one in five people lost their jobs in Australian universities, with casual staff accounting for two-thirds of 11,143 full-time equivalent job losses. 

Staff who remained said they felt increasingly disconnected from their workplace and have experienced burnout symptoms such as anxiety, depression and exhaustion.

“They're feeling a sense of survivor guilt because they've got their colleagues walking out the door and not coming back,” said Whitsed.

“There's a sense of loss when you've got a close colleague leaving and you've been working with that person for an extended period of time. It does affect you when they go."

Most participants said that they felt routinely exploited by university management and described a “toxic workplace culture”.

Amid thousands of job cuts and a sudden pivot to online learning, academics said they have been expected to carry extra workloads while maintaining pre-pandemic levels of research output.

Frustrations over working conditions have boiled over in recent months, with university staff strikes taking place across major NSW universities.

A silver lining

When asked the question, 'What brings you joy at work?', relationships with colleagues, teaching and students were at the heart of most participants' responses.

According to Whitsed, the majority spoke about their role as educators and mentors, and expressed a sense of passion towards their field of expertise.

“The teaching side of it was really important; the fact that you feel energised when you come out of a class,” he said.

“Also, most of the staff who participated said they felt most comfortable and supported within their immediate team with whom they work.

“What has happened with COVID is that it's become more disconnected. People become more isolated.”

For most participants, areas that once brought joy in the workplace have now reached a point of diminishing returns.

Many reported feeling that they have to compromise on their teaching quality or research output in order to meet increased workloads.

The biggest takeaways for universities, Whisted said, is for management to understand the impact that changes in the work environment have had on academic staff.

“As universities engage in enterprise bargaining in an era of increasing interest rates and inflation and so on, it'll be interesting to see how they engage with the unions, engage with their staff against that backdrop and what kind of conditions they work out in relation to that," he said.

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