CYGNA: Co-creating academic well-being

Reports on our 43th CYGNA meeting on the challenges and champions of academic well-being

[To preserve my academic well-being, this will be my last post for the year 2021. I will take a break from posting till January. Happy Christmas break to you all and see you back in 2022.]

Since founding CYGNA in 2014 we have had 30 physical meetings in various London-based universities. When COVID-19 hit, we moved our meetings online. In our 43th meeting - 18 November 2021 - we focused on well-being, possibly one of the most pressing issues in our academic careers, especially in pandemic times.

November seemed like a good time for a meeting on this topic. It is a month in which everyone is getting a little frazzled. The teaching semester is in full swing. In the Northern hemisphere the days are getting shorter and darker. But there is still a long time to go until the Christmas break!

We had 38 attendees attending (part of) the 2-hour meeting, 35 of which can be seen above. As has become common in our online meetings, we had many international members joining us, including from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain. Half of the participants were from outside the UK.

We also welcomed quite a few new attendees. A warm welcome to CYGNA members Aneeqa Suhail, Diana Kwok, Jolanta Jaskiene, Katharina Bader, Komal Kalra, Margaret Fletcher, Tine Koehler, and Yueling Zhou, who all attended for the first time.

Postcard "homework"

Sarah Dodd (top row, second right in the above picture) had prepared the most amazing session for us. At an earlier meeting - organized by Andrea Werner in our Middlesex seminar series, but attended by lots of CYGNA members - we already featured a great presentation on sustainable academic careers by Martyna Sliwa (see video a the end of this post).

So, for today we wanted to do something quite different. To help facilitate the discussion, Sarah had asked everyone to prepare one or more postcards on the champions and challenges of well-being. These cards were shared with others in break-out rooms. We also created a collage of them on the amazing Miro co-creation platform that Sarah had set up for us.

Obviously, CYGNA members' postcards are private, so we are not sharing them. However, I am happy to share my own postcards below. Maybe some of them resonate with you too? For many of us it was a really good way to reflect on what stresses us out and what facilitates our well-being.

Breakout rooms

Most of our meeting was conducted in break-out rooms for more interactive discussions. Each break-out room had two facilitators. A big big thank you to all our wonderful CYGNA facilitators. You really made all the difference!

Sarah Dodd also wrote up a beautiful story about the common themes arising from the break-out rooms discussions and our postcard collage. We'll start with the champions of well-being.

Champions of well-being

Many postcards speak to the potential freedom and flexibility of academia, sharing stories of the (sometimes fleeting) golden days which glow with the chunks of time and space needed to flourish. The flexibility and self-determination of an academic life can allow us to build healthy daily life-patterns, that together form a solid foundation for wellbeing.

At work, this can be experienced as room completely for oneself, without - for once - any demands or deadlines. This very academic form of autonomy is found in those times when we can be a “slow professor”, not hurry everything, have time to read, and talk to colleagues, to connect mind and heart by creatively pursuing our own research interests. Support for wellbeing comes, too, from plenty of flexibility, freedom, space and time for family, for exercise, for nature, for the outdoors, for pets, and for all our other passions.

There is a strong sense, then, of how very positive and connected a life it is possible to lead as an academic. Some of the time, some of us are managing to build self (and other) supporting ways of living. An academic environment that fosters wellbeing is seen as one manifesting the freedom, space and flexibility to build individually meaningful life patterns, at home and work. This is particularly important, since life outside work was also seen as a major champion of academic wellbeing, giving perspective, new ideas, new skills, practices and disciplines.

Whilst personal space, autonomy and self-sustenance are shown as of consequence, even more evident in postcard after postcard is the crucial role which collaboration, community, connection and compassion play in championing academic wellbeing. Supporting and being supported by others in the workplace, in particular, emerged as a significant theme in its own right.

Swans recounted diverse forms of mutual support, fostering collective and individual growth, development, belonging and wellbeing. Examples include mentoring, being mentored, being part of a mentee cohort, and inspiring others through our work and life path. Self-development of new skills is also fulfilling, including rising to the challenges of IT, building an academic career later in life, and exploring creativity. However, collaboration, co-creation, and exchanging with colleagues are vital champions of wellbeing, too.

Challenges of well-being

One might expect a disconnect between the champions of academic wellbeing, and its challenges; often isolating the causes of work-place dissatisfaction and misery generates a quite different set of “hygiene” factors to those which actively promote satisfaction and joy. Here we rather see mirror images: the dark and light sides of academic life centering again around time, tasks, (un)supportive cultures, (dis)connections, places and peoples, feeling (un)valued.

Time and task pressures are by the far the largest identified challenges to academic wellbeing and productivity. There is a strong sense of academics kept “busy being busy”, in purposeless meetings, and to sudden short deadlines. Here the unfair expectations of others are given prominence. Just because we aren’t in class, it doesn't mean our time is freely available. We can’t be given every job going, just because we’re competent. Busyness can also become an excuse for shared social neglect, not replying to emails, for example, and making each other unseen.

It can be challenging, too, to balance so many diverse tasks, new computer systems, and communiqués, especially when work load models and communication systems seemingly contribute to these challenges. Feeling pressured to engage with work at the weekend is one downside of flexibility, and there is a powerful sense from the postcards of coercive work cultures. Such perceived toxicity perhaps may also explain postcards telling of fear of failure, rejection, apathy and aggression, be it from reviewers, managers, senior academics or students.

Toxic values are manifested too in the over emphasis on publishing, in metaphors of academia as a race to be won, in legitimations of incredibly long personal work hours (particularly from the US, and even in book form), in autocratic and disconnected managerial decisions, and in bullying. They are increasingly encapsulated in ever more precarious career paths, building deep job insecurity into an already highly challenging workplace context. The physical closeness of colleagues on campus is a comfort and support, which has been much missed during these online years, and loneliness can also be a burden.

As well as the direct effects of these very real and troubling challenges, commercialised and coercive cultures also generate extremely damaging cognitive and emotional dissonance. Feeling disconnected, at odds with the values of our institutions and managers, our students and our senior academics is a very challenging place to be. Through stereotyping we can be made to feel quite literally that our face doesn’t fit. It can be harder still when we see this impact severely on our students and colleagues.

In sum

It is small wonder, then, that connections, community, collaboration, and compassion are crucial to academic wellbeing, as our postcards illustrate. They show a strong need to support and be supported, to create safe spaces to grow each other and ourselves, and for flexibility and freedom over tasks and timings. Where these are driven out by toxic relationships within competitive and commercialised environments, a dangerous appropriation of tasks, time, values, and wellbeing occurs.

Within CYGNA we provide connections, community, collaboration and compasion, hoping to  empower individual women to help to create these safe spaces in their own institutions. Whilst the road might sometimes seem long, Sarah reminded us of the fact that "acorns can grow into big strong trees". One her cards (see above) showed the suffragette oak, planted more than a century ago by Louisa Lumsden (1840-1935) to mark the first votes for women. Dame Louisa was one of the first five women to complete a degree at an English university. Glasgow’s Suffrage Oak grows with – and connects - the past, present and future stories of the fight for equal rights.

We can all strive to make a difference on a daily basis. As Changing academic culture: one email at a time... shows little gestures can mean a lot and can encourage others to pay kindness forward.

Academic research


Here are some well-being resources that might be helpful. David Somerville, of Strathclyde Business School, and Mary Skordia, from Sheffield University, kindly shared their collection of wellbeing resources with CYGNA for this event.

University specific

National support organisations

Anxiety UK BBC Headroom Heads together Mental Health Foundation
Mind NHS Mental Health OCD UK Samaritans

Be active

  • Mountains for the Mind: Charity promoting the benefits of being outside to better mental health.
  • Spend More Time in the Wild: YouTube channel and online community to inspire and empower individuals to head outside for the benefit of mental and physical wellbeing.
  • Headspace Meditation App:  An app dedicated to learning the essentials of meditation and mindfulness with a free Basics course.

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