The reality behind “Wellbeing Week”: How the University of Liverpool is tearing the lives of its staff apart
We, as members of the group of 47 staff selected for redundancy by the Faculty and Health and Life Sciences over recent months, are writing this letter to make people aware of the experiences we have had and of the devastating effect it has had on our mental health and that of our families. The Vice Chancellor and Professor Kenny have said that staff might find this situation ‘upsetting’, ‘unsettling’ and a cause of ‘some concern’. These mild terms do not begin to capture the impact the SHAPE redundancy proposals have had on us and on others.
At the end of January this year we received letters notifying us of our selection. These letters contained no information about why we had been selected, or any indication as to when any such information would be made available. Over the coming weeks the University repeatedly publicly claimed that we were invited to a meeting with our Executive Deans to discuss our situations. This, however, was not true. We were invited only to meetings to explore our taking voluntary redundancy. This felt akin to being asked to plead guilty and take a reduced sentence without being made aware what crime we had committed. Those of us who opted to attend such a meeting were subsequently informed that it had been cancelled.
Over the next three months we were neither provided with information, nor contacted in any way by the university about our situations. Many of us have not even had a kind word from our line managers or heads of department who were told not to get involved. These line managers have presumably felt like their hands are tied not just in supporting us but also in exercising any duty of care — to maintain impartiality in these callous proceedings.
In the past week 32 of us have received a letter informing us that we are still being targeted for redundancy. The union has made statements about the shortcomings of these “criteria” that we won’t repeat here. However, it is also important that people understand that they are only a smokescreen for an act of victimisation. A very large percentage of us believe that we have only been “selected” because of the university’s inaccurate records about things as simple as grant income or parental leave. The correct information has been sent to faculty management over recent months and yet we were told it could not be considered at that time. And now we have received a letter inviting us to consider taking voluntary redundancy with a time-limited offer of a small increase over the statutory minimum before being told what data they are using to assess us. This is a shameful attempt to scare us into accepting a plea bargain before even getting a chance to see the evidence against us.
It would be hard for an employer to devise a more damaging situation in which to put an employee. We have wondered aloud whether it was deliberately designed to wear us down and break us. Continually gaslighting us to believe we are not contributing in a meaningful way to the operation of the university, while our professional development review meetings have noted excellence in our work, is tantamount to abuse. The impact on our mental health has led some of us, and indeed members of our families, to seek professional help, putting strain on the NHS including in at least one case emergency services. One of us now has a care team to prevent suicide, when they have not thought about suicide for over 30 years. Two of us have children who have been referred for mental health treatment; one is now attending a sleep clinic and the other is being home schooled to manage mental health symptoms. Other family members are using anti-anxiety medication for the first time in their lives.
We have turned to one another for support. In these conversations many of us have talked about stages of grieving — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. We are feeling some of these daily. And most of us just continue working, as we have always done for this University. We give our best. We dedicate our time to our research and our students — to being mentors, teachers, colleagues. Working in our jobs, as if nothing has changed, makes us feel better temporarily, even while we are being held in contempt by those who are supposed to be responsible for us.
And while this is all going on, we continue to see the university claim that it cares for the wellbeing of staff and students. We receive weekly wellbeing newsletters containing crosswords and recipes that in this context feel like a sick joke. Many of our colleagues and indeed students have been wonderful and the letters of support have moved many of us beyond belief. And yet at some level, somewhere in this university, something has gone seriously wrong. We are not the only ones who are suffering. Working in an environment where this can happen — where faculty management can take unlawful actions against their employees with apparent impunity, breaking all the conventions of university life — is having an impact on many other staff members too.
Some of us have worked in this faculty for over 20 years and never dreamed we would ever see anything like this. We would like to end with a haiku, touching on the damage that is currently being inflicted on all of us.
Imposing hard SHAPES
Opens academic wounds
Never to heal