IOP and partners address mental health issues in the research community

21 May 2018

Levels of stress and burn-out among academics are as high as for people working in healthcare and social services but only a small percentage actually declare that they have a mental health condition, according to a speaker at a workshop on 11 May supported by IOP and other learned societies.

IOP and partners address mental health issues in the research community

The workshop, Investigating mental health in the research community, was hosted by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) in the run-up to Mental Health Awareness Week (14–20 May) and held jointly by IOP, the RSC, the Royal Academy of Engineering, Royal Society, Royal Society of Biology and the Wellcome Trust.

Dr Susan Guthrie, Research Leader at RAND Europe, spoke about a review of the evidence on the mental health of researchers that the organisation had carried out for the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust. This showed that while stress levels among university staff were higher than in the general working population, a third found their job unacceptably stressful and more than 30% were at risk of developing mental ill-health, only 6.2% had disclosed a mental health condition to their employer.

Among the factors influencing high stress levels were job control; levels of support; workplace relationships; clarity about role; change management and work demands – with more than three-quarters of higher education staff working more than 40 hours a week and about half working more than 48 hours (the upper limit in the EU’s Working Time Directive). While staff reported a good degree of control in their day-to-day work, they had less control over higher level decision-making, experienced poor support and were rarely involved in change processes, while these were not communicated adequately. Around 54% had experienced harassment and 48% bullying.

The outcomes included reduced productivity, absenteeism, “presenteeism” and a negative impact on personal and family life, Dr Guthrie said. A 2008 study had shown the financial cost to be around £500m in the HE sector, in addition to further costs in terms of lost skills and lost careers. She said job insecurity was characteristic of the sector, in which more than half of universities use zero-hours contracts to some extent for academic staff and there is a long-hours culture and a wide variety of management styles with leaders receiving little or no management training.

The evidence suggested that stress impacts more strongly on women in the sector, particularly if they are in roles traditionally seen as male, she said. It was also clear that “imposter syndrome” – people feeling that they are inadequate for their role or doubting their achievements and fearing that they will be found out – was a reality for many academics, particularly for postdocs.

Dr Joanna Waldie, a postdoc in semiconductor physics at the University of Cambridge, spoke about her own experiences of facing mental health conditions. Dealing with isolation, setbacks in research and rejections from grant funders is all part of being a researcher but is particularly challenging when experiencing episodes of poor mental health, she explained. However, it was important to realise that “it’s okay to take time out to look after your mental health”, she said.

IOP and partners address mental health issues in the research community

In a Q&A session after her talk, participants said it was important to have leadership from the top when addressing mental ill-health; although only one university vice-chancellor had recently declared openly that they had a mental health condition, this had made a difference. Several also felt that academia was skewed towards rewarding those who were good at self-promotion, while those who were more introverted were constantly being forced to assert ego in ways that they did not find comfortable.

Many also felt that there was too much emphasis on being mobile as an early career researcher, which could be counterproductive by taking people away from their support networks and disrupting health treatment programmes.

This was a point echoed by Dr Sara Shinton, Head of Researcher Development at the University of Edinburgh who was also a consultant for IOP for 13 years, though she was speaking in a personal capacity. It was important to “push back on the things that erode wellbeing; push back on the expectation that you need to be mobile; and stand up and call out bad behaviour”, she said, as well as to challenge the norm that “the biggest, loudest voice in the room gets all the money”.

There was a need for more training and support for managers and staff, not least in knowing what to do when students were experiencing mental health difficulties, she said. Often it was technicians who found themselves on the frontline in supporting PhD students going through difficulties – “they’re talking to me and they won’t talk to their supervisors” being a comment she had heard from technicians – but this added to their own stress and workloads.

She said: “We need to put mental health and resilience into more of our training and develop specific mental health training in partnership with the experts. We need to make it easy for people to find help and to give them named contacts and we need to be stopping and thinking about how something might impact people with a mental health issue.”

In talking to students and early-career researchers it was important to acknowledge that being a researcher is demanding and involves uncertainty, she said. She tried to find opportunities to talk about mental health and chronic conditions at university events and one event that people had found helpful was an informal social gathering that kicked off with staff talking about their own struggles with anxiety or depression.

“We should use social media, promote and celebrate kindness in science and connect with people who are trying to change the culture,” she said.

Our Head of Diversity, Jenni Dyer, who has written a blog about the workshop, said: “IOP is delighted to be working with the other learned societies so that we can start to address researcher mental health issues. This workshop is the start of our journey to bring people together across the STEM community to start to talk openly about mental health and wellbeing.”

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