Mental health at work: Vik's Story

Vik Turbine

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, today I am hosting Vik Turbine’s story. Vik was an academic for more than 10 years and talks about how the culture of the industry had an effect on her mental health and her chronic health condition.

Thank you to Vik for sharing her story with us.

 

Last June, I took a prolonged period of sick leave. This was caused by a level of stress that had become overwhelming; the result of years of trying to manage a full time academic post, a family, and stage 4 endometriosis. I had not disclosed my health condition as I believed this would damage my standing at work. Such was the internalised ableism and normalisation of stress within the sector.

I returned to work in November last year with the intention of resuming my career. Yet, I am writing this on my last day at work as an academic. This January, I handed in my resignation. It was clear that in order to avoid becoming seriously unwell again – I could no longer continue to work in academia. It has taken almost 5 months to work my notice – in part due to the standard 3 month notice period, but in part, because I agreed to complete teaching and marking on of my modules. Why? To ‘not let anyone down’.

In this post, I want to reflect on why it can take so long to recognise and acknowledge the stress we are under at work when the workplace is characterised by high levels of stress and performative ‘busyness’.

Mental health at work – the view from inside academia

My experience of stress at work has been as an academic – and this is, in some ways, a particular and peculiar working experience. Although, I would argue that it should not be treated as such. It should be treated as a job, and the university – a workplace. This would be a major step towards addressing a culture where ideas of privilege and passion can undermine rights to a healthy working environment.

At present, the organisational culture in academia in the UK is one of deliberate stress. Competition, overwork, long hours, presenteeism, audit cultures. Stressors and stress come at academics in all directions. More damaging, is that stress is internalised and normalised as ‘part of the job’.

 

It has been said to me in the past ‘everyone is stressed. If you are not stressed, you are clearly not working hard enough’.

 

My own burn out was escalated by a progressing chronic illness – stage 4 endometriosis – but if the working culture were less ableist and chronic and invisible illness better understood, I may have found it an option to stay.

While there are opportunities for flexible working or part-time hours, my experience is that this simply shifts the stress to the employee to try to manage similar expectations in less time and for less pay. We also know that this impacts women with children the most – those already at a structural disadvantage in terms of a pay and pensions gap and career progression. Chronic and invisible illness also attract suspicion and this makes handling varying health additionally stressful.

I also have 2 young children. As I was working more, I felt more guilt in being absent from my family – I was pouring every ounce of my diminishing energies into my work. The demands of which were ever increasing – in terms that only the minority can achieve – international travel, high value grants, multiple high impact publications.

I was no longer treading water. I was drowning.

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, today I am hosting Vik Turbine’s story. Vik was an academic for more than 10 years and talks about how the culture of the industry had an effect on her mental health and her chronic health condition.

Thank you to Vik for sharing her story with us.

Last June, I took a prolonged period of sick leave. This was caused by a level of stress that had become overwhelming; the result of years of trying to manage a full time academic post, a family, and stage 4 endometriosis. I had not disclosed my health condition as I believed this would damage my standing at work. Such was the internalised ableism and normalisation of stress within the sector.

I returned to work in November last year with the intention of resuming my career. Yet, I am writing this on my last day at work as an academic. This January, I handed in my resignation. It was clear that in order to avoid becoming seriously unwell again – I could no longer continue to work in academia. It has taken almost 5 months to work my notice – in part due to the standard 3 month notice period, but in part, because I agreed to complete teaching and marking on of my modules. Why? To ‘not let anyone down’.

In this post, I want to reflect on why it can take so long to recognise and acknowledge the stress we are under at work when the workplace is characterised by high levels of stress and performative ‘busyness’.

Mental health at work – the view from inside academia

My experience of stress at work has been as an academic – and this is, in some ways, a particular and peculiar working experience. Although, I would argue that it should not be treated as such. It should be treated as a job, and the university – a workplace. This would be a major step towards addressing a culture where ideas of privilege and passion can undermine rights to a healthy working environment.

At present, the organisational culture in academia in the UK is one of deliberate stress. Competition, overwork, long hours, presenteeism, audit cultures. Stressors and stress come at academics in all directions. More damaging, is that stress is internalised and normalised as ‘part of the job’.

 

It has been said to me in the past ‘everyone is stressed. If you are not stressed, you are clearly not working hard enough’.

 

My own burn out was escalated by a progressing chronic illness – stage 4 endometriosis – but if the working culture were less ableist and chronic and invisible illness better understood, I may have found it an option to stay.

While there are opportunities for flexible working or part-time hours, my experience is that this simply shifts the stress to the employee to try to manage similar expectations in less time and for less pay. We also know that this impacts women with children the most – those already at a structural disadvantage in terms of a pay and pensions gap and career progression. Chronic and invisible illness also attract suspicion and this makes handling varying health additionally stressful.

I also have 2 young children. As I was working more, I felt more guilt in being absent from my family – I was pouring every ounce of my diminishing energies into my work. The demands of which were ever increasing – in terms that only the minority can achieve – international travel, high value grants, multiple high impact publications.

I was no longer treading water. I was drowning.

Stepping out

Taking sick leave was a fraught decision. It took me 2 years of becoming increasingly ill before I finally took my GPs advice to take leave. I feared the consequences of sick leave. I knew it would increase, not alleviate certain points of stress. I would be letting work pile up, accumulate. My research would be undone. I’d miss out on networking, publication deadlines. I’d miss teaching commitments. On and on. The reasons why it would be ‘easier’ to carry on.

In the end, I am glad my body physically stopped me. It forced me to take time away. And with that time away I began to understand that I would have to change.

This does not to give organisations a ‘get out’ clause. There are so many simple and small things that organisations can do to address stress at work and to alleviate ill health on return from sick leave. And the solutions are not ‘resilience’ training, or ‘pets’ on campus. The problems are structural and cultural. They require a collective response. They require collaboration between employees and employers.

Here are some small, simple things that would have made a difference to me…

  • It should be easy to listen to an employee. Don’t, for example, say ‘oh, I don’t sleep either’, if an employee is trying to disclose serious health concerns.
  • Learn about chronic and invisible illnesses. Chronic illnesses don’t go away; think how you can work with the employee to manage them. There is a groundswell of research emerging, especially on the impact of endometriosis and other menstrual health conditions. We have access to more and better information now.
  • If an employee is on sick leave, let people know that they are not available. Reallocate their roles. Don’t let an employee’s inbox fill up with work.
  • When an employee returns to work – make it easier for them to transition. Don’t expect things to go back to ‘normal’ – that normal is what caused the absence.

A different kind of life

I’m lucky in many ways. I was able to take paid sick leave. I have a supportive GP and family. I have transferable skills. I’ve been able to choose my exit. My time away has enabled me to re-evaluate how I understand success. I want a different kind of life. I still want to make a positive difference in society – that is the reason why I became an academic and Politics Lecturer in the first place. And yet, the academy I entered as a newly minted PhD and Lecturer 10 years ago no longer exists. I don’t like the business model that is now taking over. It is time for me to do something new.

That something new is my business ‘The Learning Curve Collective’. I’ll be podcasting, blogging and offering e-courses on all things ‘Change’ for women approaching mid-life. The Learning Curve Collective will be launching at the end of this month – please link up with me on Instagram or Twitter to follow updates if this is something that might be of interest for you!

I would also like to think that my reflections on what I’ve learnt could also apply to the organisation I left. Changes can be small, but transformative.

Huge thanks to Vik for sharing her story. You can also follow her writing here.


While in a totally different industry, her story is so resonant to me and my story and it reinforces that understanding, talking about and doing something about mental health at work can make a huge difference to people struggling.

If you want to begin to tackle mental health in your workplace, check out my mad and sad class on 29th May – I even have a special Mental Health Awareness Week code for you – enter MAD20 at the checkout for 20% off.

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