How much is enough? Unreasonable tasks and intent to leave academia

How much is enough? Unreasonable tasks and intent to leave academia

This is a Research Highlight, where I present published research on doctoral student wellbeing.


In this Research Highlight I focus on an article by Bramlage, Julmi, Pereira and Jackenkroll (2021) on unreasonable tasks and intent to leave academia. I’ve written about reasons for leaving academia in a previous Research Highlight.

Being a researcher is often considered some sort of calling. Be it a calling to produce new innovations and information, or a calling to teach and guide students. A calling, or living a calling, is when an individual considers work an essential part of one’s purpose and uses this work to help others. It can be a considerable resource for the individual. Research has shown that calling can help increase job and life satisfaction, work engagement, overall happiness, and wellbeing.

However, defining a research career as a calling has its flaws. It can be (and often is) used as an excuse for poor working conditions and ill treatment. It’s also used to defend the publish or perish culture that prevails in academia. Academics who speak up about these issues might get responses such as “This is how the culture works. If you can’t handle it, you shouldn’t have chosen this career”. Needless to say that this kind of thinking is neither constructive nor inclusive, and it does not help to retain faculty.

A calling can also be used as an excuse to utilize a person’s good will. Especially in academia, where your success depends on how much you’ve done – not necessarily how well you’ve done it. As a doctoral student or a post doc, you are often asked to take on teaching and administrative tasks. Because of your status, you might feel unable to say no to these extra tasks. To some extent they can be good practice for a research career, but they might also end up becoming burdensome and slowing down your progress.

Unreasonable tasks in academia

In their study, Bramlage and colleagues investigated whether unreasonable tasks are related to workload, work stress (defined by the effort-reward imbalance model), exhaustion, and the intention to leave academia.

Unreasonable tasks are tasks that the individual considers to be outside of the occupational role. According to research, these kinds of tasks are harmful because they are perceived as directly disrespecting a person and as an attack on their (occupational) identity.

It’s important to note that perceptions of unreasonable tasks are very subjective and can change during the career or when comparing to others around you. For example, a doctoral student, who has been grading course papers for the professor’s course might feel that this is a good learning opportunity. If the other doctoral students are not asked to do the same task, this might elicit feelings of unfair treatment. This can lead to the doctoral student changing their mind about the usefulness of the task. In a similar vein, for a post doc the task of giving a lecture outside their own field of expertise, can become reasonable if a they see this as an opportunity to improve their career prospects or to gain further experience.

However, there is a tipping point when the amount of unreasonable tasks become too much.

Sometimes enough is enough

Bramlage and colleagues found that having a lot of unreasonable tasks led to role overload, work stress and exhaustion. They also found that when confronted with a lot of unreasonable tasks, the exhaustion, work stress and role overload might ultimately lead to the doctoral student or post doc having thoughts about leaving academia.

They explain the mechanisms as follows:

For some (post)doctoral students, unreasonable tasks may lead to an increase of perceived quantitative workload, causing an experienced imbalance between effort and reward, which in turn results in exhaustion triggering an intention to leave academia. In contrast, other (post)doctoral students may immediately develop an avoiding attitude leading to an intensified turnover intention as a direct reaction to unreasonable tasks.

Bramlage, Julmi, Pereira and Jackenkroll (2021), page 14

A calling is not enough

So, sometimes even a calling can’t protect you from a harmful working environment. In a recent study by Mauno, Minkkinen and Shimazu (2021), the authors showed that unnecessary tasks harm employee’s sense of living a calling, which in turn increases cynicism (a facet of burnout) and decreases organizational citizenship behavior. In other words, having a lot of unnecessary tasks implies a threat to your occupational identity and a breach in the psychological contract (between you and your employer), causing you to emotionally detach from work and become less willing to do extra work. Both of these are outcomes that harm both the employee and the organization. It is therefore important to tackle these issues before they lead to exhaustion or turnover.

Treating the causes instead of the symptoms

Bramlage and colleagues suggest that “because unreasonable tasks are illegitimate per se, it is more important to prevent them instead of fighting their symptoms.” (page 15)

Here are some ways we can help to prevent unreasonable tasks:

  • To help reduce the power asymmetry, we should impose more structure in the doctoral programme and regulation of the supervisory circumstances. “If there is more than one supervisor, it would be much more difficult for one person to take advantage of the situation and assign unreasonable tasks to (post)doctoral students.” (page 15)
  • To avoid uncertainty about what is unreasonable and what is not, we need clearer and more well-defined job descriptions for doctoral students and post docs.
  • As I’ve stated before, we need (leadership) training for the supervisors and guidelines (or rights and responsibilities) for the supervision relationship.
  • We also need clearer paths to report misconduct.

It’s also important to remember that we perceive unreasonable tasks very differently. Sometimes what seems to be unnecessary can be justified to the employee, by communicating their worth to the organization or the individual. We should not however dismiss or minimize someone’s perception of having unreasonable tasks, as this is highly subjective and can lead to adverse outcomes.

In a previous Research Highlight I concluded that

Providing doctoral students with opportunities to socialize, build networks, develop their own ideas, decide on their research topics, and removing unnecessary obstacles from their way could determine whether they stay or go.

This advice is still relevant.

References

Bramlage, J. K., Julmi, C., Pereira, J. M., & Jackenkroll, B. (2021). When enough is enough: modelling the path from unreasonable tasks to the intention to leave academia. European Journal of Higher Education, 1-22. DOI: 10.1080/21568235.2021.1873160

Other references:

Mauno S, Minkkinen J, Shimazu A. Do Unnecessary Tasks Impair Performance Because They Harm Living a Calling? Testing a Mediation in a Three-Wave Study. Journal of Career Assessment. May 2021. doi: 10.1177/10690727211018977

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