What do chronic illness and casual labour have in common? They are issues either untouched by researchers or seriously lacking in data, and two Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing (WOW)-affiliated Higher Degree Research (HDR) students have submitted PhD theses in the latter part of 2013 in response to such.

Women in the workplace and chronic illness

Recently conferred, Dr Shalene Werth’s thesis focuses on the experiences of female workers with chronic illness. Her research seeks to facilitate suffers in their being better accommodated in the workplace through a broader social change.

But in spite of the National Disability Strategy’s aim for “an inclusive Australian society that enables people with disability to fulfil their potential as equal citizens” (Werth 2012), Dr Werth highlights the contrasting views in her sample employers’ attitudes: “While governments generally acknowledge that they need to better understand the area, workplaces are less interested in the problems they create for individuals with chronic illness.”

Dignity and respect at workShalene’s research also found that improving labour market power through up-skilling and re-education, is one avenue that workers with disabilities follow in the hope of bettering their job quality and security, and obtaining some flexibility to “allow[s] for their circumstances of disability” (Werth 2012).

Obtaining employment post-PhD

In a similar vein surrounding job security, Robyn May’s thesis has investigated the casualisation of academic teaching work in Australia, and the impact this has on those casual academics, on other academic staff, and the university sector as a whole.

Robyn’s work has assisted in filling both a knowledge and data gap about this critical workforce–one that is responsible for much of the undergraduate teaching in universities but too often, is invisible.

Robyn’s research found that most casual academic teaching staff would like a more secure position, and explored the impacts of gender and academic discipline on the likelihood, or otherwise, of such a transition occurring.

“Paradoxically [though,] time spent in casual academic employment”, she says, “may detract from the search for more secure employment, rather than assist it.” Ms May’s thesis refers to the cyclical nature of casual academic employment as the ‘casual teaching trap’. Whilst this work usually leads to more of the same, “[c]asual teaching employment is so time consuming that it stops PhD grad[uates] from pursuing their publications…and [building a] research record…”, argues Robyn. “Less research…does not help in the search for more secure employment” ─ a finding that Robyn too is taking heed of in her own post-PhD job search.

Where to from here?

Shalene, a Lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland,is investigating disability in small and medium enterprises in regional Australia, female entrepreneurs in Pakistan, Autism in the workplace, and the social impacts of disability from an international perspective.

Robyn is taking her findings to the 41st Annual National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions conference in 2014, and a panel addressing the state of international non-tenure academic labour.