by Richard Collier, Newcastle Law School

Recent years have witnessed growing concern internationally in wellbeing and mental health in the legal community, an interest encapsulated in the UK in the establishment, in 2016, of a Legal Professions Wellbeing Taskforce. To date much of the now extensive wellness literature in law has focused on legal professional practice and law students within legal education and training.  Drawing on projects funded by the Leverhulme Trust and Anxiety UK this discussion explores a topic that, with a few exceptions (e.g. Wilson and Strevens 2018), has been far less explored: university legal academics.

It is acknowledged by Universities UK in their ‘Step-Change’ Framework that ‘a whole university approach’ to wellbeing is needed. As Field  (2018) observes, how is it possible to promote law student wellbeing if the academics they encounter are not well equipped and/or competent to do so? (the oxygen mask analogy). Yet a substantial body of research suggests there are factors and challenges serving to militate against precisely that. An array of studies and data sets highlight a significant and worsening problem of poor wellbeing and mental health amongst UK academic staff. Across disciplines growing concern is reflected in books, articles, special issues of journals and research reports, alongside discussion at seminars, workshops, within blogs and across social media. There is no reason to think that UK legal academics as a diverse group are somehow immune from the broader processes being described regarding how the organized practices of universities are deeply implicated in the current state of mental health of a broad cross section of its members (Peake and Mullings  2016). What, therefore, is being argued?

Metrics, Competition, Rankings:  The Always Assessed Academic and ‘Hidden Injuries’ of Academia

The intensification of metricisation, audit and new models of performance management, well-documented themes in the wider Higher Education literature, have produced a university and mode of academic life marked by what Burrows (2012) refers to as new ‘structures of feeling’. Core themes include;

  • how metrics have come to serve as part of a form of ‘quantified control’ of academics marked by a central commitment, across diverse areas of activity, to the logic of the market and competition; how initiatives designed as methods of evaluation, notably the REF, have morphed into tools of performance management;
  • how the instantiation of numerous ranking systems has resulted in a subjective feeling amongst many academics of being always monitored and assessed, with academic labour increasingly reduced to the status of a quantifiable product connected to a reframing and monetisation of academic values (a theme that found expression during the 2018 strike in use of the twitter hashtag #WeAreTheUniversity); and
  • how the ‘impact of Impact’ is itself reshaping the relationship between government and universities, bringing new cultures of precarity to academic disciplines (Knowles and Burrows 2012).

Yet what does all this have to do with the wellbeing of legal academics?

Hyper-Performance, Acceleration and the Embedding of Anxiety: Thoughts on Inhabiting the ‘Anxious University’  

A transformation in academic identities, practices and work cultures is enmeshed with how universities are increasingly focused on the management of risks associated with this marketplace and the proliferation of rankings – a key feature of global Higher Education Business (or ‘HiEdBiz’). This includes not only the risk of an individual being judged not to have met institutional expectations around research quality/productivity, grant capture and so forth – an issue central to the discussion of workloads that followed the much-reported suicides of university academics.  It also encompasses the risk at a collective level of, say, attaining a poor league table ranking, failing to sustain market position; how questions of identity, status and esteem –  and indeed, increasingly, whether one is working in a financially secure institution – are themselves bound up with issues of subjective wellbeing.

One notable feature of more recent literature has been an attempt to explore the production of institutional and individual anxieties in UK universities. This is a theme evident in both autobiographical accounts describing a range of emotional and affective reactions (with exhaustion, unhappiness, overload, insomnia, shame, guilt, hurt, worthlessness each common themes); and, at an organizational level, via a focus on the idea of the ‘anxious university’, how universities have become anxiety-inducing environments. The ‘hidden injuries’ of academia (Gill 2009) are linked, for example, to the embedding of a model of ‘hyper-performance’ within an ‘accelerated academy’ in which the idea that there can never be enough is normalised. Recent attempts to reposition ‘imposter syndrome’ as a product of new managerial controls, enmeshed with the rise of precariousness, audit cultures and heightened trends toward entrepreneurial self-promotion, highlight how seemingly relentless “calculative competitions” can have distinct physical and emotional costs (Breeze 2018).

Intriguingly, wellbeing has also become a feature of a set of counter narratives exemplified in reflections on what it might mean to inhabit, contra this accelerated academy, a ‘slow university’; to be a ‘slow professor’ (Berg and Seeber 2016); a dynamic of resistance evident in how wellbeing is now part of discussion across platforms around alternative metrics for UK higher education providers and debates about what a ‘good university’ might be (Connell 2019).

On closer examination, this research suggests, these discussions about academic wellbeing are mediated in complex ways by the intersections of age,  life course and stage of career; casualisation and contract status, with particular problems faced by a growing ‘academic precariat’; that social class, gender, race and ethnicity, sexuality, disability and health can each shape the way forms of ‘wellbeing capital’ are understood by individuals and groups within specific contexts and roles. It is revealing, for example, and a sign of how fast this agenda is moving, that the Committee of the Heads of University Law Schools (CHULS) is discussing academic wellbeing in a dedicated event on the topic later in the year.

Resilience and the Individualising of Wellbeing

For some legal scholars internationally this ‘wellbeing turn’ in the legal community, including law schools, is problematic in how the wellbeing narrative can, in certain iterations at least, be marked by a two-fold tendency to (a) individualise the social processes discussed above; and (b) frame responsibility in a way that detracts from consideration of the structures and cultures productive of experiences of poor wellbeing in the first place. This raises troubling questions about a framing of wellbeing in relation to new ideas of professional identity as a moral project; that is, one in which the ‘good academic’ is positioned as an individual who will, or should, respond to the realignment of demands by better attending to their own personal wellbeing – by becoming resilient and so forth. The problem is that this can easily mask the long-term subjective consequences of working at a level of ‘peak performance’ that these processes bring about in organizational actors; how, far from seeing resilience as something called upon in exceptional circumstances, it is positioned as a ‘base-line’ requirement in ways that reify what are seen organizationally as highly desirable traits (the ability to work long hours, say, to be ‘care-less’, to engage in hyper-competition and so forth).

What we are seeing, in both law firms and law schools, is a wellbeing debate often focused on the introduction of, say, online CBT provision, ‘wellbeing weeks’, ‘wellbeing rooms’, yoga and tai chi, self-knowledge, spirituality and mindfulness taster sessions; ‘digital detox’ periods; the provision of five-minute massages, trips to the city farm and so forth. Each can be important, welcome and positive interventions in and of themselves at this micro-individual level. The danger, however, is not only that that this lens of personal adaptation, framing structural problems as matters best be solved by self-regulation, can slide troublingly into self-blame and, with it, a furthering of distress. It can also serve to legitimate the enactment of ritual, focusing on the cosmetic and superficial, on “doing the document” rather than substantive change (Ashley and Empsom 2016). Wellbeing is increasingly appearing as a potentially new loci of metric audit in which well-meaning goals can become ‘audit games’ to be played by individuals and institutions; ‘how is your institution doing on wellbeing? See out new league table’.

Finally, and looking to this year’s SLSA conference, this wellbeing debate in the context of law schools raises issues central to the discussion of law and emotion (see Jones 2018); about a clash, for example, between ideas of the intrinsic rewards and value of a liberal legal education ‘in its own right’ and the proliferation of systems of rankings, audit and metric assemblages associated with earning capacity and market value. Digging deeper,

underscoring these debates are questions about how the legal community responds to evidence of a far greater awareness of the complex interactions between mental health and the workplace; of the need to work in more effective, efficient and safer ways; and, looking to generational shifts in attitudes, of the greater willingness of Millennials to be open about mental health issues, a theme reflected in recent studies of wellbeing and resilience by the Junior Lawyers Division and the discussions now taking place amongst many academics, including legal scholars.

This is a topic all too often culturally silenced from the formal spaces of discussion; confined to hushed conversations in corridors, in coffee breaks, over drinks at conference dinners, in hurried moments between emails; in “happenings, fragmented memories, echoes of conversations, whispers in corridors” (Sparkes 2007)  –  set within an organisational context in which recognition of individual vulnerability and suffering is present and yet, in another sense, rendered invisible. The danger remains however that, for all recent welcome interventions, the perception ‘on the ground’ will be that there is a disconnect between expressed commitment to improved wellbeing and the systemic causes of distress; and a danger that the kinds of initiatives being introduced within the law’s ‘wellbeing turn’ will remain, at the end of the day, little more than sticking plasters.


L.Ashley and L. Empson (2016) ‘Convenient Fictions and Inconvenient Truths: Dilemmas of Diversity at Three Leading Accountancy Firms’ 35 Critical Perspectives on Accounting 76

Berg and B. Seeber The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016).

Breeze (2018) ‘Imposter syndrome as a public feeling’ in Y.Taylor and K. Lahad (eds) Feeling Academic in the Neoliberal University: Feminist flights, fights and failures (London Palgrave Macmillan)

R.Burrows (2012) ‘Living with the h-index: metric assemblages in the contemporary academy’ 60 (2) The Sociological Review 355

R.Connell (2019) The Good University: What Universities Actually Do and why its time for radical change London Zed Books).

Field (2018) ‘The well-being of academics in neoliberal universities’, College Seminar, Australian National University 30 August 2018.

Gill (2009) ‘Breaking the Silence: The Hidden Injuries of the Neoliberal University’ in R. Flood and R.Gill (eds) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections (London Routledge)

Jones (2018) ‘Transforming Legal Education Through Emotions’ 38 (3) Legal Studies 450-79

Knowles and R. Burrows (2014) ‘The Impact of Impact’ 18(2) Etnografica 237.

L.Peake and B.Mullings (2016) ‘Critical Reflections on Mental and Emotional Distress in the Academy’ 15 (2) ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 253.

A.Sparkes (2007) ‘Embodiment, academics and the audit culture: a story seeking consideration’ 7(4) Qualitative Research 521.

J.Clare Wilson and Caroline Strevens (2018) ‘Perceptions of Psychological Well-being in UK Law Academics’ 52 (3) The Law Teacher 335.