Focus Recognize and value unhealthy academic behavior

Opinion | by guest writers

May 10, 2022 † Academics often show unhealthy work behavior because their surroundings normalize such a work pattern, writes Yarin Eski from VU University Amsterdam. Based on a theory by Edwin Sutherland, Eski gives a brief criminological consideration.

Focus Recognize and value unhealthy academic behavior
Photo: Cottonbro

For a long time, academics have been in an unhealthy, perhaps toxic workplace, where we are so passionate about teaching and research. That passion is increasingly lost on impossible working days, too much teaching load and barely enough research time. The entire academic hierarchy, from student assistant to professor, must believe in it: Recognize and value. Work is slowly underway to turn the ongoing debate into implementation. All to make academic working life and scientific staff a little healthier again.

We could call unhealthy academic work behavior problematic, perhaps deviant, without necessarily breaking the law. It pushes the boundaries of mental, physical and social health. Think of burnout, neglect of privacy, family and friends, and stress-related physical ailments. It is therefore time to put the academic workload, the normalization of unhealthy work behavior and the damage we inflict and inflict, under a criminological magnifying glass.

If your partner is also a scientist, you are even more likely to influence each other with unhealthy academic work behavior.

This will be done carefully here on the basis of the theory of criminal behavior by the criminologist Edwin Sutherland (1939). [1992]† differential association theory. Sutherland suggests that people teach themselves certain norms, values, attitudes, techniques, and motivations for criminal behavior through interaction with others. In other words, you are behaving in response to others and their crime. The most important part of it takes place in learning criminal behavior through intimates.

Based on Sutherland’s nine bids on how to learn criminal behavior, we can make an attempt to recognize, understand, and possibly explain unhealthy academic work behavior. Hopefully, we will find possible solutions in light of the implementation of the Recognize & Appreciate program.

Learned, not innate

We teach ourselves unhealthy work behavior; it is not in our DNA as scientists to work in a problematic and unhealthy way. The institutional structures of the academic work environment are responsible. Women in particular appear to exhibit unhealthy academic work behaviors more often and are more likely to experience burnout (Doyle and Hind 1998; Taka et al 2016). This is often due to the unequal distribution of family responsibilities in the home, but also institutional sexism in universities, forcing them to work harder for promotion (Morley 1994).

Interaction with others normalizes overtime

Unhealthy academic work behavior is learned through interaction and communication with other individuals; in other words, we learn unhealthy work behaviors. Our colleagues work overtime as standard, and most often they hiccup or are already in the process of burnout (Ghorpade et al. 2007). In this way, we learn that unhealthy work patterns are normal, and that lesson we pass on to others. This has only gotten worse during the corona pandemic (Gewin 2021).

3. Intimacy

The most important part of learning unhealthy academic work behavior takes place in intimate personal groups. In particular, we copy unhealthy work behaviors from colleagues closest to us. If your partner is also a scientist, you are even more likely to influence each other negatively with unhealthy academic work behavior (Wilson 2005). It also means that if your closest colleagues or your partner shows healthy academic work behavior, you are more likely to adopt it.

4. Rationalize

When you learn unhealthy academic work behaviors, you teach yourself specific techniques to display the behaviors. We rationalize our own behavior. For example, we get up extra early and work after five o’clock. Working on weekends has also become normal (Rawlins 2019). We see conferences like holidays, drinks with colleagues replacing our social lives and your name in an inaccessible PDF file, published in a pay walled journal we see a high power factor as the highest achievable (Sutherland, K. 2017). We are also motivated to do this because “Everyone does it.” We say to ourselves, “How do you make a career” or “I make that decision myself, do not I?”

5. ‘In the way’ of the academic career

These considerations are often in conflict with our mental, physical and social health. The consequences are depression, anxiety attacks and sleep problems (Urbina-Garcia 2020), but also persistent heartburn, palpitations, high blood pressure (Rode et al. 2022) and in fact all the hallmarks of a burnout. Attention to the partner, friends and family also loses towards unhealthy academic work behavior (Muller, 2014). In fact, you think your own mental, physical, and social health only “stands in the way of an academic career.”

What is science if it is done by unhealthy scientists?

Healthy influences do not outweigh unhealthy influences

A person exhibits unhealthy academic work behavior due to an excess of self-explanations as to why it is beneficial to ignore mental, physical, and social health. These explanations win over explanations that are actually beneficial to mental, physical and social health. This is the principle of differential affiliation† In other words, when people exhibit unhealthy academic work behavior, they do so not only because of the presence of people who themselves have unhealthy patterns, but also because of the absence of people with healthy patterns. A romantic relationship between two postdocs – the academics with the most job insecurity (Tijdink, 2019) – can be an absolute hell for each other’s mental, physical and social health.

7. Various associations

Differential attachment due to unhealthy academic work behavior can vary in frequency, duration, priority, and intensity. During grading, submitting research proposals, or completing research reports for the client, unhealthy academic work behaviors appear to be more intense and are learned more quickly in combination with other unhealthy work behaviors. “This weekend I’m going to have fun with the calculations so I can work on an article all week next week!” In addition, the (perceived) workload is mostly on education, while research is still most valued.

8. Unhealthy work behavior is not limited to higher education

The process of learning unhealthy academic work behavior through differential association encompasses all the mechanisms that also arise in learning other behaviors. It is therefore not inherent to academic work, but an expression of it more broadly The spirit of the times where neoliberalism triumphs and creates toxic jobs and work cultures everywhere (Buitelaar 2020).

9. The need for a career does not explain behavior

Unhealthy academic work behavior can therefore just as easily be explained as learned criminal behavior. So while unhealthy academic work behavior is an expression of general needs and values ​​(namely career advancement), it is not explained by these general needs and values. Everyone wants to succeed, even those who manage their academic careers in a healthy way. It is then about: what do we learn (from) each other, and what should we learn (from) each other?

We should think carefully about the last question. We must integrate this response into the implementation of the Recognize & Appreciate program, which will initially involve the Recognition & Tracking of unhealthy academic work behavior. This requires openness, honesty and transparency about the mental, physical and social (in) health experienced in our work. Because it wouldsecure space installed in universities where people are more likely to talk about it. Administrative tasks at a lower level, care tasks at a higher level. We need assessment criteria that pay attention to care, well-being and management, which should not primarily be about individuality, commercialism and competition, but about true collegiality. For what is science done by unhealthy scientists?


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