Eleanor Reeds is currently a PhD student and instructor in the Department of English at the University of Connecticut. Raised by a feminist collective of nurses in the UK, Eleanor now teaches American teenagers how to write about culture and value their own intellectual contributions. She blogs about research, teaching, and academic life at The Ivory Tower.
It can sometimes feel that anxiety and depression are inevitable for those of us who work at universities, whether as a teacher or student or—in my case—both. The impossible is so often expected of us. As a “graduate employee” in particular, my experience has been of long and antisocial hours, low pay with few benefits, and a constant worry that my contract won’t be renewed. I’m working toward my PhD and teaching undergraduate students because I feel called to do it. It is my vocation: what else could explain my dedication to it in the face of these working conditions? I find it too easy to over-invest myself in my work, especially as my students are often going through a lot themselves, and my mental health suffers as a result.
I’m not alone in this. We know teachers at universities and schools suffer disproportionately from poor mental health, as do those in other fields where the physical and emotional demands can only really be met because workers consider their jobs as more than just a way of paying the bills. For example, nurses willingly carry a huge burden because they put their patients above themselves. Their empathy and self-sacrifice are accepted as natural: unfortunately, this makes it too easy for nurses and similar professionals to be exploited. If you are motivated by caring for others, why should you be compensated in other ways? We need to encourage a shift in attitudes toward these professions and in our society as a whole. Individuals with vocations are in particular need of encouragement and support when it comes to seeking time and space to take care of themselves.
You would be right to envy me for being paid to read and discuss nineteenth-century literature, and even for some of the more frustrating parts, like giving detailed feedback on 22 student essays in a single day! But I never want to feel ashamed for taking the necessary time for meeting with my counselor and for switching off the siren call of my email account for an afternoon. In a 24/7 world, in which we are expected to be constantly available to our employers and demonstrate our dedication, it has become even more important to safeguard our time and space in order to care for our bodily and mental health. Loving your work should never mean that you stop loving yourself.
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