The image is of several bullet journals, with text, photographs and various yoga poses, provided by a participant to show how they practice self-care.

Carrying the world on our shoulders: the burden of self care in academia

This article was written by Dr Sana Rahim (Sheffield Hallam University)
This article was published on

Dr Sana Rahim writes the fourth blog in our special series 'Gender, race, and the intersections of precarity'. She discusses how women academics understand and practice 'self care'. Continuing the work flowing from our 2021 BISA and PSA report 'Career trajectories in UK departments of Politics and International Relations', Dr Skyler Hawkins (Newcastle University) coordinated this series to give real faces and experiences to the key statistical findings.

Some of the ideas and content of this blog are from a forthcoming book chapter “Women in academia: Stories and strategies for navigating the career trajectory” (Routledge). Thank you to all the participants that were kind enough to share their stories, excerpts of which are anonymously shared in this blog.

Current social practices around wellbeing including the avoidance of burnout, attending wellness workshops and achieving work/life balance (Brinthaupt, Neal, and Otto 2016) seem to operate in a way that often places the burden of responsibility of self care on the individual subject themselves.

For women who are underrepresented in academia, with the existing double burden of both being the recipient of harassment and discrimination and then having to do the work to dismantle it (Ahmed, 2016) there is now a third increased burden of taking care of the self. This narrative where the notions of ‘wellbeing’, ‘mindfulness’ and ‘self care’, and the ways in which they are presented, allow them to be offloaded onto these underrepresented women in the academy. This is particularly harmful because instead of promoting a space for wellbeing it adds to the existing workload and pressures of meeting multiple demands of academia often building up feelings of stress and guilt.

Speaking to a number of wonderful women in the Global South and the diaspora, I was eager to gain an insight into what self care meant for them and how academia had met these needs. I found that there is a need to disrupt the current climate of encouraging ‘resilience’, and the ‘winners take all approaches’ in academia, and instead uncover ways in which the dialogue of self care can be transformed from ‘managing the self’ to a ‘connect to the self’ approach.

"Academia causes an environment that requires self-sacrificing”.

Participants suggested that being mentored on or overly encouraged to pursue wellbeing ‘websites’ and ‘wellbeing committees’ at the institutions was not valuable, and in fact disregarded the real problems in higher education and academia:

“To sit there and talk about mindfulness, to sit there and have wellbeing committees. Those committees really really should be focused on how do we end precarity for graduate students, how do we make sure things like conferences are affordable. You want to talk about wellbeing? Wellbeing starts with basic needs being met”.

Self care and wellbeing are very different for those of us that are underrepresented in academia. Simply acknowledging that racism exists for some or that some of us are privileged is nowhere near enough if the wellbeing of women in academia is to be taken seriously. We are not only fighting against ridiculous workloads, underfunded institutions, gendered structural and systemic disadvantages, and pressures of publishing as our colleagues are, we are also educating people on decolonising their curricula, educating about recognising racism bias, inspiring students that you can make it regardless of who you are and more often than not carrying with us historical trauma.

“This whole rhetoric – to describe this self care movement is mind-numbing and again it’s more damaging than it is good”.

Women from the Global South have been practising self care in very diverse ways for as long as they can remember. This includes infusions of oils and herbs, practices of aromatherapy, dance, yoga, spiritual practices, baking, and so much more. These practices are now often co-opted and or re-designed and presented as solutions back to us. For what are much larger structural problems. What we don’t need is guidance on how to self care. What we do need is a genuine transformation of higher education and academia in the UK. As Orly says, ‘sticking plasters are not enough.’

“You cannot self care your way out of a bad structure. And care isn’t about that. Self care is about survival – when we’re talking about survival we’re talking about care. You can’t thrive until you are able to survive”.

Ultimately the answers to how social practices of self care within academia can be beneficial for underrepresented women will come from:

  1. Having the space to voice their own individual experiences and needs in relation to self care, and then policies and practices developed from this rather than the ‘one fits all approach’ currently adopted in institutions.
  2. Institutions structured by representative standards and values that do not encourage self-sacrifice.

Photo by Kajal Nisha Patel on (Instagram)