Women in the Spotlight: Sarah Waters


Sarah Waters is a Professor of French Studies at the University of Leeds. She discusses the unconventional nature of the combination of her role and her research expertise in work-related suicide, for which she campaigns to have recognised as an official cause of work-related death in the UK.

Tell us more about your role at University of Leeds.

I am a Professor of French Studies. I have previously held leadership roles as Head of French and Deputy Head in the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies. Most of my teaching is targeted towards students interested in French history, politics and society. I teach mainly in the French language and the students really love the opportunity to discuss often complex themes in French. Of course, they need to feel comfortable in doing so, and teaching style and approach is important.

What do you enjoy most about working in your sector?

Academic freedom in teaching and research. Using research as a tool for social change and to help make a difference, however infinitesimally small in the world. I love being able to teach and research in the French language.

How important is innovation within your role/sector?

I work in an unconventional field in that I’m a professor of French studies, but my research expertise is focused on work-related suicide. I think I bring innovation by being able to draw on in-depth knowledge of the French context to shine a spotlight on what is happening in the UK and to highlight certain shortcomings or inconsistencies. Humanities researchers are experts in reaching outside of their discipline and building links with researchers in other fields. We bring an in-depth knowledge of lived and narrated human experiences, as documented in fiction, documentary, history or testimonial work. This can bring a rich and nuanced perspective, particularly when you are working with researchers who are more familiar with abstract statistical patterns or theoretical models. For example, a new field that is opening in French Studies, is French Medical Humanities. This is so exciting.

What professional achievement are you most proud of?

Being part of a national campaign to push for reform so that work-related suicides are officially recognised, investigated and prevented. Raising awareness of dangerous gaps in health and safety policy in the UK. Last summer, our work (a British Medical Journal article) was reported across of all of the national media.

What, if any, are the challenges of being a woman working in your sector?

Any challenges are intersectional, I think and are linked to a range of other factors including crucially, job status. If you are on a fixed-term insecure contract, you will face huge challenges in finding your feet in academia. I am in a privileged position as a white woman with a permanent contract. I entered university work before precarious contracts became the norm. University work is a two-tier system and I am lucky enough to be in the privileged tier, with permanent status and a good pension. So many brilliant and talented women leave academia because they can’t get a foothold on the career ladder or get burn-out by really awful employment conditions.

What advice would you give to other women working in your sector?

Stick with it. Believe in your research ideas and in your capacity to make a difference. Don’t lose sight of your students. They really need your support, guidance and help.

Finally, can you tell us more about your project into suicide prevention in the workplace?

For over ten years, I have researched the phenomenon of work-related suicide. I analysed suicides in three large French companies and I tried to understand why work or working conditions might push someone to the extreme distress that can lead to suicide. I’ve since done research on the UK context where the policy framework is very different. Suicide is not officially recognised as a work-related death in the UK. This means there is no investigation or no prevention measures put in place by government in the aftermath of a suicide. There is no data collected on work-related suicide. This means that opportunities to prevent suicide deaths are being missed. I campaign with the Hazards trade union group and we lobby the Health and Safety Executive. I have had several meetings with the chief executive of the Health and Safety Executive. I am currently involved in an international Call to Action on work-related suicide that is being launched by the International Association for Suicide Prevention. Some people ask me if suicide is a depressing subject to research. I think it is both deeply sad and fascinating. Albert Camus famously said that there is only one serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.