Staff voice concerns about “massively unsustainable” workloads as University offers extra Christmas leave

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Durham University’s Executive Committee has announced that staff will be granted two further days of leave at Christmas, prompting criticism from staff members concerned about the impact on their workloads.

The extra leave was offered to staff in recognition of their “extraordinary efforts” during the pandemic according to an email sent by acting Vice-Chancellor, Professor Antony Long.

Only staff on higher grades of employment will be entitled to the two extra days, staff on lower grades and term-time only contracts will instead receive a £400 shopping voucher at the beginning of December.

Joanne Race, Director of Human Resources told Palatinate that the offer had received “largely positive” feedback and that the University wants “as many staff as possible to be able to collectively enjoy a longer break” as a token of appreciation for their “hard work and commitment”.

The move has, however, gained criticism from several staff members, who claim that the decision does not acknowledge pre-existing issues surrounding workloads.

“There just isn’t enough time in the year to do everything or enough staff to do it”

Anonymous Staff MemBer

One Durham University staff member said: “It’s great to see all the extra unpaid hours we’ve put in being acknowledged and recognised by being given the chance to put in more extra unpaid hours”. Another professor described the decision as “meaningless” for academics.

Durham’s branch of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) acknowledged that the extra leave would be welcomed by many staff, but echoed these criticisms.

“If the level of work remains the same, and deadlines are not also extended by two days, many staff will feel under pressure to either work through these extra holidays or to put in an equivalent amount of unpaid overtime elsewhere, and therefore gain no benefit from this gesture.”

Responding to recent staff criticism, Race commented: “We are aware that colleagues are working extremely hard and managers continue to monitor and consider workloads across the University.”

Workloads have increased significantly during the pandemic

She also noted that the University is in regular communication with managers and Union representatives. Staff were previously offered extra days of leave during 2020 and 2021.

In response to last year’s extra days of leave, one anonymous member of staff said that their workload was “becoming massively unsustainable” and that the issue had worsened since the start of the pandemic.

“There just isn’t enough time in the year to do everything or enough staff to do it.

“A few extra days of holiday is nice but doesn’t fix the systematic issues”, they wrote in a self-selecting survey carried out by Palatinate last summer.

Durham’s branch of the UCU told Palatinate that workload issues have increased significantly during the pandemic, but that the issue is part of a longer-term trend.

“Massive expansions in student numbers over the last decade have not been matched by similar increases in the number of academic or professional services staff – in fact, the employer held two massive cost-cutting reorganisations prior to the pandemic in which already strained professional services departments were reduced further.”

In order to resolve these issues, Durham UCU wants the University to “ensure that all departments and workplaces are staffed adequately to do the work required without needing the vast quantities of unpaid and often unrecorded overtime that currently keeps the university going.”

The UCU is currently protesting rising workloads in the higher education sector alongside issues surrounding pay, casualisation, and equality in its “Four Fights” campaign. UCU members are due to vote this month on potential strike action regarding these issues, as well as an ongoing dispute over proposed changes to pensions.

Image: Tim Packer

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