Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Calm for Heads of Department


Over the summer, as I said in my last blog entry, I took a lot of time off. I also made the quite difficult decision not to follow a possible career path, at least for the time being. At the time I wasn't sure I had done the right thing. Now, with every day that goes by, I feel calmer, more content and less stressed about work and so I know that I have. I tweeted about this sense of relative serenity, which prompted a fellow Head of Department to ask how such a thing might be achieved. So I thought for a change that I might take inspiration from Prof Serious's occasional advice blogs and write one of my own. Obviously, these are just things that work for me- other HoDs might disagree. However, much of what follows is the result of conversations with various mentors, who have all been HoDs in their time. I hope they will be pleased to see that I'm finally trying to put their excellent advice into practice, although it has taken a while to sink in.

So, here we are: the little blog of calm for HoDs, or how to stay sane(ish) while running a department.

Learn how to say no.

Yes, everyone tells you this, but you are the HoD so you have to say yes to everything, right? Wrong. You cannot possibly do everything that's asked of you; so work out what's essential, what's desirable, and what might be nice if you had infinite time. Realise that you may only be able to do things in the first category, and maybe the second, but that life is too short for the third. Then learn to lose your guilt about telling people that you can't do what they want you to: that includes people senior to you. In fact senior managers do understand the problems you face, because lots of them have been a HoD, so they may be surprisingly sympathetic when you admit you can't do everything. If something is important, but impossible for you to achieve immediately, ask for more time, help or extra resources with which to do it. You don't have to do everything yourself, right now, nor is it actually possible. If there are no such resources, there must be legitimate questions about whether the activity really is critical.

Also realise that sometimes you will be asked to do something because you are known to be good at such things, and it would be easier for others if you said yes, just like you usually do. The person asking probably knows you are overwhelmed, and fully expects you to say no, but they have to ask. This is so that they can tell others involved in the relevant board/committee/panel/working party/conference that the obvious candidate has been approached, but can't do it, so another must be found. It is also so that you, the obvious candidate, don't get offended and huffy because nobody asked you. (Go on, admit it, you would be, even if you knew you were too busy to do it). If only, like Latin, there were different words for a question expecting the answer yes and one expecting the answer no: life would be so much simpler and more guilt-free.

Decide what you like doing, and do it.

The admin part of being HoD is pretty circumscribed, but you still have some control over the rest of your career as an academic. Work out what you enjoy and make time for that part of your job: some people love teaching, others writing, giving talks, being part of professional bodies, so be honest with yourself about what you look forward to and what you'd rather avoid. Say no to at least some of the things you don't like. If you can't dump the other stuff completely, try to change the balance in favour of things you like and are good at. If you don't want to say no outright, and it's something you'd like to do in future, postpone. Thus you can ask people to contact you again next month, term, year, or when you have finished being HoD, by which time you may have the time you currently lack. And yes, some people will always be huffy and ungracious when you say no, but try to remember that's their problem not yours.

Slow down.

Your career has almost certainly been a success so far, or you would not be HoD. But doing the job for five years will probably mean that your meteoric career progression will slow down somewhat. You will probably publish less, be able to PI fewer grants or not have time to write The Big Book: this will make you CV look less stellar. Well, stuff happens, so get used to it. It's only five years after all, and you get a year off afterwards to get back up to speed. Don't fret about what you can't change. You probably have at least 15-20 years of your career in front of you, so there's plenty of time to recover. I mean, what's the point of doing everything at breakneck speed then finding yourself in your early 40s with no professional ambitions left? (That's not actually rhetorical: if anyone has an answer, I'd be grateful if they'd share it...)

Take time off

Like most academics you have probably never taken enough of your holiday before. Start doing so now. Being HoD is a terribly pressurised existence, and you absolutely have to take time away from it to recharge and recover, or you will become steadily less effective. You might feel guilty about doing this, but as one senior person said to me last summer, you will be no use to anyone if you burn out. People work less and less efficiently the more tired they get, so if you want to do a good job and be helpful to your colleagues, you have to take time off. There is also the added benefit that your colleagues will feel that they can take holidays too. Managers who seem to work every hour of every day of the year, are, in effect, communicating to their colleagues that anything less is unacceptable for anyone who wants to be considered a success. You may not mean to do this, but you need to be aware of the, perhaps involuntary, messages you are sending if you don't take leave yourself, or spend your entire 'holiday' doing work email.

Get over the idea that the department will disintegrate in your absence. It won't, as long as you make plans about who will cover what when you are away. You will probably find that if you want to take more than a week off, you will need to plan it some time in advance. This is a good thing. It means you can tell everyone when you will be away, including colleagues, PhD students and your line manager- this gives them time to get over the shock. Do what you'd do with any other important commitment; put it in your diary, and the departmental calendar, if you have one, then keep your resolution and decline all work-based invitations to meetings etc during this period. If it's utterly essential that you are represented at a given meeting, this gives others time to rearrange or find someone else to deputise for you. Having made your decision, don't beat yourself up by comparing yourself to a fellow HoD or senior manager who seems to get by with no sleep and no holidays. That's their decision and it's their life; you don't have to do the same.

Oh and when you take time off, take time off properly. Don't even read work email, let alone reply; don't blog or tweet if you usually do so as part of your professional identity. People might find this odd, if they can't resist it themselves, but warn them in advance, then persist, and they'll get used to it. And don't read work-type books on holiday. The only way properly to relax and recover is to take it as seriously, as an activity, as you would your work.

It's only a job

Try to cultivate a sense of detachment about the job and its stresses. In the end, it is only a job, and not even a very important one at that (unless you are the very rare kind of academic who really does saves lives and cure dreadful diseases). It is not worth ruining your health or your relationships over what is, in the end, just a way to earn money, however much you might enjoy it. So use this knowledge as a way to help you say no, back off, chill out or take time off.

Remember that it's not just about you.

Spare a thought for your family, especially your partner. If you are a moaner, they will have to listen to your woes in far greater detail that they might wish to: if you are a sulker, they will have to bear your silent, black moods with equanimity. They will also have to put up with the times you come home late, having been to some professionally-related event that you cannot get out of because you are HoD and suffer from the time you spend away from them, dealing with the typical HoD's workload. So remember to forgive them when they finally snap or, ideally, try to remember to thank them for their tolerance, and spend enough time with them before that happens. This is all part of the reason for taking time out- your partner, friends and family need to see something of you as well as your colleagues.

That's about it. Of course this is not easy, and you may need to practice some of the more difficult things, such as saying no, several times before you succeed. Treat it like a diet. Don't give up in despair just because you ate a bag of crisps; forgive yourself, try again, and eventually you will get used to it. Good luck!

No comments:

Post a Comment