After I finished my PhD, my former supervisor offered me a one-year contract in his research unit at the university. I had great colleagues at the research unit and it was a stimulating place to work – but the atmosphere was often toxic because of the high profile (male) professor who ran it. All the other staff were on similar short-term contracts, and most were young female former students of his. I was aware that several staff over the years had raised grievances against him, but the university always kicked them into the long grass, which was very stressful for my colleagues. He brought in lots of money for the university, and boosted its public engagement profile – which was why the university was unwilling to take any action on his bullying. It was also obvious that lots of people in HR were scared of him and unwilling to stand up to him.
When I approached the end of that contract, he told me that another contract would be available on a similar project – but he didn’t provide any clarity, saying that it depended on a lot of other factors. I felt he was delaying the process as a bullying tactic. While I was waiting for the contract for the second project, I found out I was pregnant. I was aware from colleagues that our boss did not like his employees going on maternity leave, and complained when staff had to be off to look after sick children. I was very worried about telling him I was pregnant because I didn’t yet have my contract renewed, and I felt I had to hide my pregnancy. Eventually my new contract came through, by which point I was 14 weeks pregnant.
I summoned up the courage to tell him that I was pregnant, and asked him to confirm that my project would be paused while I was on maternity leave, so that I would be able to complete it when I came back from maternity. He did not respond to my email and I became anxious, so contacted the head of department, who referred me to the research office, who referred me back to my boss. I also asked the national research council which funded the whole project if it would be possible to extend the contract, and they confirmed that this is their expectation. My anxiety increased significantly in this period and I began to find it hard to concentrate on my work.
My boss eventually said he would tell me what was happening about my maternity leave in a meeting in February 2020. He would not say anything by email. In the meeting, he was aggressive and accused of going behind his back by contacting other people, and kept emphasising that it was a very complex matter. He spent a long time talking before telling me he had decided to replace me rather than pause my research. This meant that I would be made redundant while on maternity leave.
I found it very difficult to respond within the confrontational setting of the one-to-one meeting. He also said that since I was going on maternity, I would have to complete an extra article before my leave started. I found the meeting extremely upsetting and stressful. After the meeting I noticed I had marks on my neck as the anxiety caused me to dig my nails in. It was at this point I realised how much the situation was affecting my mental health, and decided to seek professional help.
I twice requested a pregnancy risk assessment from my boss as I was aware of the impact the problems were having on my own and other people’s health. I was told that I did not need one as my boss had ‘not established there is a risk’. I was eventually given a risk assessment by the head of department 9 days prior to the birth of my baby. When in a later meeting I asked HR and the head of department if they were aware of the risk to mental health of working in the research unit, they said it would be ‘inappropriate’ to discuss it.
My anxiety disorder and panic attacks increased. Whilst my anxiety was initially triggered by contact with my boss and the situation surrounding my redundancy, it became generalised and began to affect all areas of my life. I was diagnosed with work related anxiety and panic attacks, and accessed talking therapies as well as the perinatal mental health team. I was advised to take sick leave in May 2020. I had planned to come back to work prior to starting maternity leave but I was hospitalised at 35 weeks, and my baby was delivered by C-section at 37 weeks.
A few months later, I heard from colleagues that my boss had been forced into early retirement – it seemed as though the university had finally taken notice of the complaints stacking up against him, although this meant that they would not take any formal disciplinary action against him.
So I considered returning from maternity leave a few months early to finish the pieces of work remaining, before my contract expired in April. However, in a meeting in November with HR and the head of department, I was advised that, while he has formally retired, he continued to manage the project, so I would be answerable to him if I returned to work. On this basis, I felt unable to return to work. This was a waste, as it meant that the pieces of work remained unfinished, but I decided that I must prioritise my own and my children’s health.
While on maternity leave, I raised a grievance, a process which I found extremely stressful and upsetting as it meant reliving all the difficult experiences of earlier in the year, and a time when I need to focus on my baby – and it felt like the university put as many obstacles in the way as possible. After a meeting with an HR partner and an internal reviewer, I finally got a response the day my contract ended in April 2021.
A series of recommendations were made – the most important being that the default position should be for a research associate/assistant’s work on a research project to be paused during maternity/adoption/shared parental leave, unless a written justification is presented. This seemed like a really positive step, even if (as far as I understood) it would simply bring university policy in line with the legislation. It seemed like it would make it much harder for people like my boss to take advantage of the opacity surrounding the issue in order to make arbitrary decisions.
After that, I heard nothing more. At the end of November, I got back in touch to see if the recommendation has been implemented – I was told it’s still being discussed…