autumn rising

Just after seven yesterday morning, I opened our back door and stood on the step. My breath misted in the cool air; dew clung to rooftops, and the sky was that brilliant dense blue of autumn ripening. The last day of August, and of my sick leave – the longest period I’ve ever had off work that wasn’t maternity leave.

As regular readers know, I suffered a pulmonary embolism recently. Initially I returned straight to work but it became clear I really wasn’t feeling very well, and in the end have had over a month signed off.

Today I am officially Back, which is a strange sort of thing in that I don’t really need to go to an office: I mostly work from home, and term hasn’t yet started at the University of Oxford so college is quiet anyway. All I had to do differently today was sit down at my desk – and remember how to work.

I tweeted a little bit about my sick leave at the start of this week; my thoughts seemed to resonate with a few people, and so I thought I would expand on them here. Firstly, I acknowledge my extreme good fortune to work at a place with a very generous sick pay policy. I was off work on full pay, which is significantly more than the statutory sick pay established by the British government (and note that these apply only to employees, not workers under British law), which meant that my sick leave was not plagued with worries about paying my bills. Many people cannot afford to take this much time off work, and if they are not classed as employees their employment may be vulnerable to termination. Often these people are those most at risk of falling into crisis due to an income shortfall even for a short period of time, and should be most deserving of protection. A TUC report shows that women are particularly vulnerable to negative consequences of casualised, precarious labour. This is a major problem in retail, social care and hospitality industries – and within academia, as for example Susan Berridge argues in her personal account here.

Both the creative industries and academia are marked by an increasing casualisation of labour, potentially long hours, feast/famine patterns of working, job insecurity and resulting financial instability and heightened stress and anxiety. Within academia, this precarity is keenly felt by ECAs, many of whom are on hourly (low) paid contracts, characterised by irregular working patterns that are subject to constant change … This situation is tough for all ECAs, but for those with care responsibilities – and typically, it is women who remain disproportionately affected by duties of care – these challenges are exacerbated.

Acknowledging that I come from a position of privilege (and urging you to support your colleagues who work in precarity), my personal feelings about having been on sick leave turned out to be surprisingly complex. Despite knowing that I wasn’t really well enough to be working, I also felt unexpectedly guilty about not working. After all, I wasn’t in hospital or stuck in bed all day, so surely I could really do some work? And if not, I should surely make my sick leave Productive in some way. This week, coming to the end of this time off, I felt guilty that I hadn’t read more serious novels, or done more housework, or even sent more emails to friends. I couldn’t help feeling that I’d frittered away my weeks off.

What I actually did with my time off: get some more sleep. Try to walk more. Read a few books, mostly light. Cooked and cleaned in the usual amounts I would every week anyway. Dropped 1.5 points on my BMI (which is an imperfect measure but a downward trend is, for my overall health, a useful thing). Took my daughter to spend a week with her grandparents. Iced a whole bunch of cupcakes for her second birthday. Celebrated my own birthday. Gave myself some space to breathe.

Near-death experiences generally encourage people to rethink their lives, or so Hollywood tells us. I wasn’t particularly near death, but the dark spot of a clot in my lung might have done for me a few months or years down the line if left to its own devices, and it certainly made me think hard about what matters to me. So I have tried during sick leave to recentre my thinking on being valuable in and of myself, not for what I produce – which is a surprisingly difficult exercise in a culture that prioritises production. I’ve written before on not doing whatever it takes to “succeed” in professional terms, but all the same it’s a hard lesson to internalise – even if I’m the one giving the lesson! This culture has exhausting, demoralising consequences for academics –  and in wider British culture, allows for a political system that consequently requires our most vulnerable members to constantly justify their existence in order to receive support for that existence.

Anyway. Here I am, at lunchtime on a Friday, trying both to be productive in terms that match my job contract and fulfill the parts of me that love being an academic, while not letting my worth be measured in outputs and products. Totally doable, right?

I think I just decided on my title for this: A Work In Progress.