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University Mental Health Day – An opportunity to think about our own mental health and wellbeing?

By iomh, on 8 March 2023

A student studying in a library at UCL. credit: Mat Wright
Researchers need to pay attention to the impact of the content of their work on themselves. credit: Mat Wright

The discoveries and positive impacts of academic research can give researchers great job satisfaction but the role also brings stresses that pose a risk to their mental health. University mental health day is a chance for researchers to reflect on these, write Helen Nicholls, Jo Billings and Danielle Lamb.

Mental wellbeing at work has been relatively neglected until very recently, despite working age adults spending on average 35% of their waking hours at work and 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime. We know that good work can be good for mental health, but that poor working environments – including discrimination and inequality, excessive workloads, lack of resources, limited job control and job insecurity – can pose a risk to mental health.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into wider public consciousness the potential of work to be distressing and traumatic, with research from UCL finding that 58% of the frontline health and social care workforce met criteria for probable anxiety, depression, and/or PTSD after the first wave of the pandemic in the UK. COVID-19 has undoubtedly also had a huge impact on students and staff in academia; delaying research, imposing isolation and increasing burden with additional workloads and remote and hybrid working. Yet only very recently have we started to pay attention to the impact of working in academia on our own mental health and wellbeing.

Recent research with staff working in higher education in the UK has shown that 53.2% report probable signs of depression and that 9 out of 10 agree or strongly agree that their work is stressful. Figures not so dissimilar to those reported on frontline health and social care workers. Rates of anxiety and depression amongst UK PhD students are also reported to be higher than other skilled workers. As reported by The Guardian: “mental health problems are on the rise among UK academics” due to job insecurity, a competitive atmosphere, excessive workloads that can eat into personal time, a “publish or perish ” frame of mind, and challenges related to equality, diversity, and inclusion.

A systematic review recently published by researchers at UCL found that these structural issues can leave academic researchers at risk of experiencing psychological distress which can affect every aspect of their lives, from productivity and effectiveness at work, to personal relationships at home. The negative impact of these issues on mental health has led to some researchers questioning their long-term commitment to academia. As highlighted by a recent University and College Union (UCU) survey of approximately 7,000 university employees in the UK:  

“Two-thirds of respondents said they were likely or very likely to leave the university sector within the next five years because of pensions, pay and working conditions”.

UCU survey of university employees

Working in academia can undoubtedly have benefits for mental health and wellbeing. Having a level of autonomy and flexibility over work hours and research topics can contribute to feelings of satisfaction at work, as can making scientific advances that positively impact society. However, this may not be enough to keep researchers in the higher education sector. It is essential that as a sector we work towards positive structural change. This could include providing greater job security, valuing researchers’ lives outside of academia, and re-thinking research evaluation systems. Acknowledgement of the organisational responsibilities towards employees could help to ensure a more mental-health-friendly academic environment going forwards.

As we turn our attention to the consequences of working in academia on academics, we also have the opportunity to pay attention to the impact of the content of our work on ourselves. As researchers, we often work with the difficulties and distress of others, frequently engaging with challenging, difficult or sensitive topics. We therefore also have a responsibility to think about how to keep researchers safe when engaging with important, but potentially challenging, work. We can think about best practice in terms of induction and training, individual and group supervision, reflective practice, peer support, and easy, equitable and timely access to more formal psychological support. The future presents many challenges, but also opportunities, to better support the mental health of our ourselves and our academic colleagues at UCL.

Helen Nicholls is a final-year doctoral student. Her research focuses on the mental health and wellbeing of researchers in academia.

Dr Jo Billings is Consultant Clinical Psychologist an Associate Clinical Professor in the Division of Psychiatry. Her clinical and academic work focuses on PTSD, resilience and the mental health and wellbeing of staff working in high-risk occupational roles. 

Dr Danielle Lamb is a Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Applied of Health Research at University College London, working within the NIHR ARC North Thames.

The Mental Health at Work Special Interest Group is hosted by the UCL Institute of Mental Health and intended to bring together a network of researchers and academics from across UCL who are interested in mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

The inaugural conference of the Special Interest Group will be taking place on Wednesday 11 May, 1-5pm on the topic of Mental Health and Wellbeing in Academia.

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