Mental health: A radiography of a human head and its brain

Increasing awareness of researcher mental health

This article is part of a Special Issue highlighting sessions held at ESOF 2018 Toulouse (9-14 July 2018) and proposed by the Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA) members.

Attend this session on 13th July at 17:00.


Recently, there has been an increasing amount of attention paid to the mental health of researchers. Research is an activity that aims to confront the boundaries of human knowledge: it demands excellence from all researchers, who aim to publish in peer-reviewed publications, submit grant applications, achieve tenure or defend a PhD thesis. Ambitious research goals are very often not achievable without very significant hard work, intellectual creativity, experimental skills and corresponding investment in research equipment and infrastructure. Researchers identify with and are dedicated to their work to a very great extent. A recent report noted that researchers simultaneously demonstrate high levels of job satisfaction and high levels of stress and depression. Nevertheless, hard work does not have to lead to suffering.

Research often requires joint efforts from a team. The mutual dependence of the relationship between junior and senior researchers can often result in significant differences of opinion, and consequently conflict and stress that can lead to anxiety and depression on the part of the junior researcher. Often such issues are a direct result of the growing independence of the junior researcher during the PhD. This relationship between junior researchers and their supervisors is not equal and the onus is on supervisors to support the efforts of their junior researchers and to communicate clearly.

The career development prospects of individual researchers within academia are very often characterized by a string of positions with fixed-term contracts. Many early-stage researchers (ESRs) are highly motivated to continue working in research but are unsure about their future career choices. Best practice in career advice for ESRs has recognised the mismatch between the large number of fresh doctoral graduates and the correspondingly low quantity of open positions in academia. The focus of career advisors has shifted from academic careers to a broad spectrum of research-related career options. Eurodoc represents the interests of PhD candidates and has become active promoting awareness of mental health issues among ESRs and lobbying for policy initiatives to address this issue.

In addition, researchers, especially untenured junior faculty, also have commitments to teaching, management, and other administrative tasks. Hypercompetition has resulted in lower acceptance rates of research funding proposals and researchers often spend a great deal of time drafting, revising and resubmitting proposals. Junior faculty are often less likely to be funded than more senior principal investigators. Work overload can easily lead to work-life imbalance and disillusionment with research as a career. Working long hours is often taken as an implicit work requirement and some researchers are unable to manage this situation and sustain a healthy work-life balance: this is more likely to affect young and female researchers. As a result, researchers can develop issues with depression, sleep deprivation, eating disorders, and even suicide. Furthermore, wider relationships and internal politics in research institutions are not always straightforward: research is competitive and the boundary between colleague and competitor is not always clear. Researchers’ lack of trust in their colleagues can lead to barriers to communication and isolation.

Work-family conflict is often a common cause of time stress for researchers with children and other important and fundamental social obligations. In particular, the implementation of family-friendly policies encourages a positive work-life balance in both men and women. This lack of work-life balance may be exacerbated by the performance measurement of researchers. There has been an increased focus on measuring the impact and excellence of research and in particular how individual researchers contribute to particular economic and societal goals. It has been suggested that such evaluation is often biased by the tunnel vision of research managers (supervisors), which places undue stress on researchers.

In the last few years, there has been some pioneering work to gather evidence of the mental well-being of researchers. In the seminal study of Katia Levecque and her team, the prevalence of mental health issues among PhD candidates in Flanders was assessed. The paper showed that around a third of those surveyed had or were at risk of developing a mental health disorder. This paper resonated extremely strongly outside the narrow audience of specialists in this area and gained the attention of the wider research community. According to Altmetrics, it had the second highest impact on conventional and social media of all academic papers published in 2017. Another study at the University of Leiden reported similarly high levels of mental health issues among early-stage researchers. A recent report recommended that the counseling services of universities should develop specific capabilities to address the needs of postgraduate researchers.

Furthermore, Susan Guthrie of the RAND Corporation and her co-authors published a report on the mental health of higher education staff in the UK and concluded that “Levels of burnout appear higher among university staff than in general working populations and are comparable to ‘high-risk’ groups such as healthcare workers.” A study by the German Education Workers Union, GEW, on how work conditions affect the health of non-tenured staff in academia, found that the main stress factors were occupational uncertainty due to fixed-term contracts, the requirement to work uncompensated overtime and conflict between work and family lives. The study identified three key, work-related resources for addressing the problem: (1) control over the scope of scientific work, (2) social support from colleagues and supervisors, and (3) defining specific work tasks and content.

It needs to be noted, that many of the studies regarding researcher mental health have been carried out in European countries with more well-financed research systems. It has been suggested that countries whose research funding is less secure may have even greater issues.

On a global level, international organisations, for instance, the WHO and the EU, have been advocating for the promotion of good practices in the workplace which research institutions should adopt. In 2016, the Bratislava Declaration of Young Researchers proposed that implementing sustainable career trajectories and flexible research environments would support a healthy work-life balance and reduce stress for Europe’s researchers.

Some initial efforts have already been taken in Europe towards addressing this mental health deficit. A good example is the Eduworks Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions project. Eduworks provided mental health training for early-stage researchers and supervisors alike. This training programme is now in the process of scaling up, aiming at the professionalisation of researchers of Europe. This training was developed by the Student Counselling Service at Trinity College Dublin (through the contribution of the mental health counselors, Yvonne Tone and Mark Robinson) and Gábor Kismihók as the scientific coordinator of Eduworks.

High levels of researcher mobility may exacerbate the levels of mental health issues due to the lower degree of familial and societal support. Francisco Goncalves is a PhD candidate in psychology, who founded the start-up Rumo that provides online support to internationally mobile researchers in their native language. Rumo has already provided counselling services to internationally-mobile professionals in six countries, where the majority of the users have been academics, including PhD candidates, postdoctoral researchers and even principal investigators. Rumo will present a poster at ESOF 2018 that demonstrates the mental health issues affecting academics in their daily lives, such as, isolation, depression and anxiety.

Also major European Researcher communities are now articulating their concerns and lobbying for an adequate, long term solution to protect European researcher’s health. The Marie Curie Alumni Association represents a community of internationally mobile researchers, who have benefitted from the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions. Brian Cahill was Chair of MCAA until February 2018 and has extensive experience of supporting members of the association, who encountered difficulties during their Fellowships. MCAA published a Statement on Framework Programme 9 that encouraged the expansion of support for the mental health and well-being of researchers. Sara Cameron a former Early Stage Researcher in Germany until she chose to return to her native Scotland after 6 months, where she is now a PhD candidate at the University of Strathclyde.

The organisers of this workshop want to stress the timeliness of this issue, as the high prevalence of psychological stress will have a significant effect on the performance of the European Research Area. The workshop session “Increasing Awareness of Researcher Mental Health” at the EuroScience Open Forum 2018 in Toulouse aims to engage researchers, practitioners, research institutions, research funding agencies, policy makers and research community representatives to suggest ways to address the phenomenon of the high levels of mental stress experienced by researchers.

Brian Cahill, Francisco Valente Goncalves, Gábor Kismihók, Katia Levecque, Susan Guthrie, Mark Robinson, Sara Cameron

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Brian Cahill

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