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Riding the Waves of Change: A Call to Reform Academic Wellbeing

Posted on: September 25, 2023

Professor Narelle Lemon, Edith Cowan University

In the ever-evolving world of academia, the concept of reform takes center stage. Reform signifies making improvements and changes in our institutions and practices, prompting us to reevaluate, reconsider, and reinvent. It calls for reflection and a pause in our fast-paced academic lives.

Higher Education and Wellbeing

For higher education, reform is needed, especially when it comes to how we value and integrate wellbeing and self-care. But this reform should not be a solitary endeavor; it should be a collective effort. Contrary to the commercialized idea of "self" in self-care; self-care is about self-love, self-compassion, and an awareness of self. Self-care is relational, not a purely individual act, relying on  the support, inspiration, motivation, and collaboration of others. It additionally benefits others, as when we are flourishing, we naturally influence others in positive ways and can do our best, feel energized, and enjoy what we are doing.

Self-care is not a passive process but an active and proactive approach to nurturing your wellbeing, wellness and health.

It involves engaging in behaviors that draw from diverse areas of wellbeing science. However, it's essential to acknowledge that personal and professional self-care can differ. To engage in professional self-care effectively, we must distinguish it from personal self-care practices. Often, reform is necessary, not only within ourselves but also collectively among colleagues and institutions.

It's time for our academic institutions to reform how they support their workforce.

This call for reform encourages critical and reflective exploration, emphasizing the importance of individual identities and their broader social, relational, and political implications. We must closely examine our situations, policies, behaviors, leadership, and the prevailing cultural practices. This introspection should be complemented by an understanding of the broader context and macro developments to avoid narrow perspectives.

Viewing wellbeing as a collective phenomenon, we have a vast range of domains and practices that can be implemented across leadership, policy, university-wide practices, professional and academic staff, students, and the higher education community. Successfully reforming this interconnecting system is both empowering and challenging but entirely possible.

How to support academics

Academics are intelligent and critical thinkers who desire recognition, support, and a platform to voice their experiences. They are experts in their respective fields and deserve to be heard, not just for their knowledge but also for their experiences within academia.

We've moved beyond the days of one-off wellbeing workshops during semester teachers breaks or offering free yoga classes during lunch breaks. Academia demands a different approach—a systematic systems approach where wellbeing is not merely a passing trend but an integral part of our academic culture.

Our work environment is complex, with constant changes and pressures. The traditional work-life balance debate is dominant in higher education, and we all acknowledge that it poses significant barriers to our wellbeing. We often find ourselves juggling competing demands, struggling with overwork, and facing job precarity. It's essential to acknowledge the need for interruption and reform in these aspects of our professional lives.

As we delve deeper into wellbeing and evidence-based approaches, we are offered the opportunity to reconsider our work culture and the realities we face. Scholars studying academia shed light on the competitiveness within the sector, pressures to conform, bureaucracy, funding cuts, and conflicts in belief systems and values. Workload and the struggle for work-life balance continue to be central issues, affecting our wellness and overall wellbeing.

Our colleagues are exploring entrepreneurial and mobile ways of working, revealing the diverse pressures that threaten sustainable and smart work practices. The culture of overwork is pervasive, affecting academics at all levels. There is a pressing need for change and interruption in these patterns.

As we navigate these complexities, we often forget that change can be instigated by us, not just something that happens to us. We must learn to surf the waves of change in our academic careers.  We can't stop the waves, but we can learn to surf them. We can explore coping mechanisms as well as individual and systems approaches that help us navigate the challenges and stressors that come our way. The stressors may not disappear, but our approach to them can change.

Wellbeing should be an integral part of the change process in academia, not an afterthought.

Embracing change and disruption provides opportunities for us to better understand our workplace culture and our own identities as academics.

Creating a culture shift within academia is essential. We need to cultivate an academic culture that values individual uniqueness and encourages intrinsic motivation. Let us learn to surf the waves of change, disrupt the status quo, and create a culture that values wellbeing and self-care as essential components of academic life.