CYGNA: Work intensification, well-being and career advancement

The name CYGNA derives from the female version of the Latin word for SWAN (Supporting Women in Academia Network). The main objective of the group is to promote interaction among female academics based in the London area and to provide a forum for learning, support, and networking. We typically hold five meetings a year with a mix of presentations and informal discussions. We also maintain a readings and inspirations section for female academics and have a Twitter hashtag #cygna_london. If you’d like to join the CYGNA network, just drop me an email

29th meeting 29 November 2019 (ESCP)

After hosting our 23rd meeting at ESCP London at the 23rd of November last year on Understanding your co-author(s) & yourself with MBTI, this year we hosted our 29th meeting on the 29nd of November. What a nice coincidence! As usual we had a mix of old-timers and first-time attendees.

The latter included Barbara Czarnecka [back row, 1st on the left] from London South Bank University, who had even matched her skirt with the CYGNA logo, my Middlesex colleague Anne Daguerre [back row, 3rd on the left], presenter Kerstin Alfes [5th on the right] from the ESCP Berlin campus, Ruxandra Monica Luca [3rd on the the right] from the University of Sussex, Ilenia Bregoli [kneeling, 2nd on the left] from the University of Lincoln, and Washika Haak-Saheem [kneeling, 1st on the right] from Henley Business School.

Work intensification and employee health

The theme of this meeting was work loads and work intensification and their impact on health, well-being and careers. Kerstin Alfes (ESCP, Berlin campus) presented us with an excellent introduction into research on the topic, as well as some of her own research [presentation slides can be downloaded here] which she subsequently applied to academia. Unfortunately, Kerstin had to leave early to catch a plane back to Berlin, but the plentiful questions and comments that her presentation generated already indicated how relevant the topic was to all of the attendees. Kerstin's key take-away's were:

  • An increasing number of academics around the world indicates that they suffer from a high workload and work intensification
  • Factors that contribute to feelings of role overload relate to the wide range of role demands, high performance expectations, and organisational politics
  • Support from peers is more relevant in buffering the negative implications of role overload on individuals' health compared to the direct line manager or organisational interventions
  • Academics should therefore build cohesive and supportive team structures

Work effort, well-being and career advancement

Argyro Avgoustaki (ESCP, London campus) specialises in researching work effort [including both overtime and work intensification], so it is not surprising she delivered a second highly engaging presentation [presentation slides can be downloaded here]. Argryo key take-aways were:

  • Hard word may not pay after all. Why? Work effort relates strongly to reduced employee well-being and modestly to inferior career-related outcomes.
  • Work intensity generally is a stronger predictor of unfavourable outcomes than is overtime work. Work intensity typically comes from a persistent exposure to tight deadlines, which is often accompanied by constant work at high speed.
  • Employee discretion (over how and when work should be done) may attenuate these adverse implications.
  • Work effort and specifically long hours is a persistent complaint among PhD students. Similar to employees, PhD students aren’t always sure that all of those hours will pay off.

Discussion on workload and work intensification

Both presentations were so engaging that - in contrast to most other meetings - we didn't even have a tea break. All attendees eagerly contributed to a extended discussion about the topics raised, which was continued over an excellent catered dinner (thanks ESCP!). In fact, I don't think we have had as heated a discussion at a CYGNA meeting since we discussed internal and external promotion at Middlesex in September 2018. It is clear that both topics are central to the academic profession.

What was very interesting is how the discussion on workload drew in many topics we have touched upon in earlier CYGNA meetings or in my Middlesex staff development meetings: saying no (see also When to say no?) and the additional demands that are often put on women academics (see our March 2018 Birkbeck meeting on Life-long learning which initiated a long discussion on this), the importance of resilience (the theme of our first Northern CYGNA meeting in Leeds) and the related posts: How to prevent burn-out? About staying sane in academia and Be proactive, resilient & realistic!, the importance of finding meaning in your work (see also: Return to Meaning: A Social Science with Something to Say) and obviously the earlier-mentioned meeting on internal vs. external promotion.

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