‘I’m stressed, but I know how fortunate I am to be in my position’: Gratitude, Precarity, and Mental Health

Thank you to everyone who responded to my previous blog on mental health and helped me to think through some of these things. Thanks also to the Class and Capitalism reading group run by Richard Bromhall, David Civil and Abi Rhodes for setting readings on audit culture and providing such great discussion.  This paper was given as part of a panel on mental health for the University of Birmingham Modern and Contemporary forum. I’m so grateful to the organisers for inviting me to speak.

You may notice that the title is significantly different to the one on the posters. Initially, I was going to use this space to talk about the very personal connections between my illness – Borderline Personality Disorder, depression and anxiety– and my historical practice. However, talking about the intimacies of my life in any connection with my work proved quite difficult. I still don’t think we’ve quite developed a language for talking about the more difficult or troubling aspects of ourselves, our lives, and how they relate to our research. Or at least I struggle to find a productive way to do so. So that’s the disclaimer done with, I’ll begin this paper on the politics of gratitude properly.

Recently, I wrote a blog about how the structures of postgraduate bureaucracy, the culture of postgraduate life and the position of precarity affects our mental health.  Mental health is something that we all have, and we are all living with the possibility that our mental health can deteriorate, that it can start to disrupt our daily life and, for all of us in this room, that it can start to impede on our work to such a degree that we can no longer continue.  Worse still, and I’ve been here very recently, our mental health can decline to the point where just being is so emotionally painful that the infliction of physical pain is the only answer, where life becomes so tormenting, that ending it becomes a plausible solution.

There are infinite reasons why any one of us might end up in that position. But I daresay that all of our mental health is affected – for better and for worse – by the structures within which we work. And it is that relationship – between mental health and structures of labour – that I wrote about in the blog, that I’m concerned with today.

There are many scholars, far more knowledgeable than I, who have written about recent changes in Higher Education, in particular the audit culture and the neoliberalisation of the university.[i] Suffice to say we are all working in a system that clearly has a market rationality, even if it is not yet a market proper, and that this rationality demands higher levels of performance from its staff, measured through means like the NSS, performance reviews, the REF and, in future, the TEF.

Now as postgraduates, it may seem that on the surface we are exempt from these processes, but I believe this rationality seeps into our lives in two ways. Firstly, we are subject to a distinct audit culture. We all undertake review processes designed to ensure we are maximising our performance. As a funded student, I have two reviews a year that deal explicitly in financial terms to ensure that I am making the most of the material resources at my disposal. In short, reviews make sure that we are value for money. As postgraduate teaching assistants, we are subject to compulsory observations on the grounds of helping us to become better teachers. But this falls apart when pedagogically, it makes more sense to offer proper training and let us observe excellent teaching than it does to just observe us. And let’s not forget that we are consistently measured and graded before we even get accepted on to a course. Surely by the end of a four year PhD then, our mentality is such that we don’t even realise everything we do is part of audit culture.

Secondly, all of us feel the stress of working in an audit culture. We hear conversations, see our supervisors, and speak to other members of staff. We do this just by being in this environment, but we also seek out information because we too want to be part of the university in the future and are still weighing up whether it will be worth the stress.

And I’m concerned about stress. I’m concerned that stress is becoming normalised, that stress is even becoming fetishized. I’m particularly concerned that my peers and I even accept some level of stress as part of our future. And if we accept stress, if we accept audit culture, if we are well-versed in it by the time we get full-time jobs, I’m concerned that we are destined to reproduce it.

In this sense, we are already complicit in the system: we all have to reproduce it to some extent just to get in to it. Every time we apply for funding, every time we fill out a review form, every time we are observed, every time we jump through the hoops designed to measure and assess us, we are complicit in the very structures that are making us and our peers stressed. That’s a key way in which this kind of culture and structure makes us sick: it offers no alternative routes or possibilities. The only possibility of change is to jump through the hoops to a full-time position, but you will get stressed along the way.

If these structures are so insidious that we are dependent on them from early on in our research careers, is there anything we can do to resist them? Well today, I want to suggest that one way we can resist it is to stop being grateful. I have lost count of how many times I’ve heard a researcher say something along the lines of ‘I’m feeling stressed, but I know I’m fortunate to be here’. Gratitude perpetuates harmful structures that cause stress and exacerbates other mental illnesses in three ways, and I’ll lay them out here.

Firstly, gratitude relies on researcher isolation and seeks to further divide. It is precisely because everyone has a different research journey, a unique trajectory, that gratitude is able to thrive. When someone says, ‘I’m feeling stressed, but I know I’m fortunate to be here’, ‘here’ changes according to individual context. ‘Here’ can be the university, the PhD, the funding, the research council funding, the scholarship, the conference, the award. We are all grateful because we all know someone who does not have what we do. But in this sense, gratitude sows division, perpetuating hierarchical and competitive structures.

Secondly, and related to this, gratitude has a silencing effect. Precisely because we are all conscious that we should be grateful, we do not talk about our stress and are wary of discussing the negative aspects of our postgraduate experience. For example, I am permanently conscious that I am a funded student and feel guilty talking to non-funded students about my experience. In this sense, gratitude works in a similar way to acknowledging privilege in that so many times acknowledging our privilege means feeling guilty about it and staying silent. I prefer to take a lesson here from feminist writer Roxane Gay, who states ‘the acknowledgement of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been marginalized, the ways I have suffered’. You do not have to apologise for your privilege. Similarly, you do not have to apologize for all that you have achieved in academia and these achievements should never stop you from speaking about the harm that these structures are causing. Your silence, our silence, will only perpetuate that suffering for all. But such is the logic of gratitude that we all keep quiet. And remain grateful.

Thirdly, gratitude obscures labour. On my PhD induction day, when my peers and I were told we are fortunate to have research funding, I forgot about all the hard work that had gone into getting there. Gratitude completely obscures how much labour has gone into getting where we are, instead presenting academia as a lottery of luck or placing us at the whims of our benefactors. But we have worked, and we continue to work, hard. We all need to stand up and say ‘I am not grateful for getting my place here, but I am proud of myself and my peers’. If gratitude ignores all of our work, the bravest thing we can do is acknowledge our own work, and the kindest thing is to acknowledge the work that others have put in.

Gratitude obscures, gratitude divides and gratitude silences. If we are told we should be grateful to be here, that competition is fierce, and we are the lucky ones, we feel guilty when we are stressed, unwell, and sick, only exacerbating the situation.  Most importantly of all, gratitude helps to sustain precarity. Precarity relies on gratitude as much as it relies on fear. For this reason, we all need to stop being grateful and start being proud for what we have achieved. Taking ownership of our labour is a huge step to combatting precarity in the academy, precarity that is making us sick, that is causing a mental health crisis.

Finally, I want to return to mental health, because I don’t want mental health to simply be a prism through which we view precarity or, worse, normalised as a by-product of the research environment. Mental health should instead be understood as symptomatic of a systemic problem; that it is part of a system and the worsening of people’s mental health is not accidental, even if it is inadvertent. To be clear, I don’t think there is a top down conspiracy to worsen researcher’s mental health, but I do think the current structures within which we work make this inevitable. In that sense then, we are all as likely to become complicit in the system, as we are to become its victims. It is only once we acknowledge the fragility of our position within the system that we can begin to use mental health as a form of political activism. That our experience of poor mental health can bind us, that it can be used to raise consciousness, that it can unite us all and give us a platform upon which we can fight. For this reason, I will begin by taking ownership of my labour, talk boldly about my experience, and look for genuine collaboration and solidarity with people. I will be thankful, but never grateful. And I urge you all to do the same.

Laura Sefton

University of Birmingham


[i] An overview of this literature is provided in J. Cruickshank, ‘Putting Business at the Heart of Higher Education: On Neoliberal Interventionism and Audit Culture in UK Universities’. Open Library of Humanities, 2:1 (2016)


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