Overworked and under stress? Shining a spotlight on the mental health and wellbeing of academic staff
Mental health and the ‘COVID effect’
Higher education across the world has been undergoing a dramatic transformation since COVID-19 first reached our shores (e.g. Moja, 2021, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03075079.2020.1859688, raising many questions and concerns for us as academics, individually and collectively. How have our perceptions and lived experience of academic life been changed by the pandemic? What have we learned – about our work and about ourselves - and how might we harness this learning for the benefit of all into the future?
More specifically, how have we been faring in terms of our mental health and psychological wellbeing during the last 22 months and are we any worse off in this regard than we were pre-pandemic? This is an important question, particularly given that COVID-19 has dramatically changed the narrative around mental health, leading to more conversations and public discourse than ever before, and highlighting a growing recognition of the need for all of us to engage in appropriate self-care and self-compassion, including minding our mental health.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, in view of the many challenges of COVID-19, recent international research, which includes Ireland, demonstrates a dramatic deterioration in global mental health since the pandemic began (Santamauro et al., 2021,https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S0140-6736%2821%2902143-7). The national and international media/social media is awash with articles on the topic including the disproportionate and multiple (negative) impacts of the pandemic on the mental health and wellbeing of young people, with the most recent evidence from Ireland indicating that young women aged <25 are particularly at risk (e.g. Cotofan et al, 2021, https://worldhappiness.report/ed/2021/work-and-well-being-during-covid-1... Healthy Ireland Survey, 2021, https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/9ef45-the-healthy-ireland-survey-2021/).
Staff mental health and wellbeing: A forgotten crisis?
In an academic context, there have been growing concerns around student mental health in recent years, including postgraduate students who, traditionally, have been absent from Third Level discourse on student mental health and who report alarmingly high rates of mental ill health (e.g. anxiety and depression levels ranging from 36% to 51%) (Levecque et al, 2017, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0048733317300422; Woolsten, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-03459-7. However, the topic of mental health amongst academic (and research) staff in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) has received considerably less attention.
It is commonly believed that universities are “calm and relaxed places of work, populated by academics who have long holidays, small workloads and obsessions with obscure subjects” (Erickson et al, 2020, https://theconversation.com/survey-of-academics-finds-widespread-feelings-of-stress-and-overwork-130715). The reality, of course, is often very different, albeit the evidence suggests varying experiences of life in the academy depending on factors such as age, gender, caring responsibilities, and level of seniority to name but a few; these, against a wider backdrop of, amongst other things, the increasing marketisation of higher education, ever growing student numbers and rising expectations, as well as the precarity of many early (and sometimes mid-) career lecturing and research posts. Isolation has also been highlighted in recent research as an important factor in negatively impacting the wellbeing of Early Career Researchers (Belkhir et al, 2019; https://doi.org/10.5465/amle.2017.0329). Furthermore, there is an increasing range of metrics against which our ‘success’ and career/promotion prospects are assessed. Thus, the many and diverse demands of academic life, including the pressure to produce more and more in less and less time, can produce high levels of work-related stress which, if protracted, and often in combination with other personality and life factors, can lead to poor psychological wellbeing or mental ill health.
Added to these are the pressures and strains of COVID-19, several national lockdowns and a more recent shift to blended learning formats, all of which required us to dig deep to ‘keep the wagons rolling’ and we did just that, across every HEI in the country. We pivoted, during the first lockdown, to online teaching (and research) at incredibly short notice, punctuated by multiple remote meetings/discussions/email exchanges as we grappled with new and often quite alien digital technologies - and with often worse effects for women than men (e.g. Andreeva and Zappa, 2020, https://www.rte.ie/brainstorm/2021/0922/1248317-hidden-aspects-hybrid-work).
We raced to adapt our normal teaching practices, with attendant efforts to retain insofar as possible, our quality standards, whilst supporting our students to the best of our ability. Many of us saw our workloads increase to unprecedented and often unsustainably high levels whilst working from home and for many, simultaneously homeschooling children and young people and/or caring for, and supporting, older parents and grandparents, as well as worrying about our own health and wellbeing and especially those of us categorised as ‘vulnerable’.
Teaching aside, many of us looked on helplessly as research projects, typically involving Early Career Researchers (on contracts) or being undertaken by our postgraduate students as part of their PhDs or Masters, came to a shuddering halt, or suffered endless delays and often permanent changes to their design and execution, with significant negative impacts on the psychological wellbeing of many of the researchers involved. Then, in the midst of it all, in 2020, there came funding calls for impromptu COVID-19 projects which sent many (including our ethics committees and research support offices) into a frenzy of even more activity - and so it continued…
What do we know about the mental health and wellbeing of academic staff?
A current perspective from Ireland
A survey of Irish academics (n=167) conducted in the summer of 2020 (Shankar et al, 2020) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03323315.2021.1932550 as part of a larger still-to-be-completed global study, highlights a number of negative COVID-19-related impacts, including work-related stress, ‘digital fatigue’ and work-life imbalance, all of which have potentially significant implications for mental and physical health and overall wellbeing. However, things are not all bad; the study participants reported some positive perceptions and experiences, including greater utilisation of digital pedagogies, innovation in teaching and learning, and the promotion of reflexive practice. Indeed, there is ample anecdotal evidence from Ireland and elsewhere, of other more widely documented benefits across many occupations including academia, such as greater flexibility at work (including ‘being present’ at home with children), higher levels of productivity amongst many, and less commuting. Nonetheless, few of us would have ever expected the sudden and dramatic changes to last this long. The findings of an ongoing, national, DCU-led study should provide more up-to-date and much-needed insights into the workplace experiences of HE staff in an Irish context as we move into (incredibly) year three of the pandemic (Higher Education Staff Survey - closing date 12th December).
International research has also shone a spotlight on the mental health and wellbeing of academics. The most recent study, a large survey of over 2000 academic and academic-related staff (Kinman and Wray, 2021, https://www.educationsupport.org.uk/resources/for-organisations/research/supporting-staff-wellbeing-in-higher-education/) showed that almost two-thirds of respondents reported feeling emotionally drained at least once a week (29% daily), with only 29% reporting average or higher psychological wellbeing and over half (53%) obtaining scores indicating ‘probable depression’ – considerably worse than population norms. Many showed signs of burnout and more than three-quarters indicated that they had to ‘often’ or ‘always’ work intensively. The vast majority of respondents felt that staff wellbeing was not a priority for their university (71%) and that productivity was valued more (78%). Notably, 71% felt that seeking help for stress or a mental health problem would negatively impact their career. While there may be cross-jurisdictional differences in this regard, it is worth noting that a recent SeeChange survey in Ireland, across a range of occupations, demonstrates comparably high (and continuing) levels of fear and stigma around mental health disclosure in the workplace, especially amongst women and older employees (SeeChange, 2021,https://seechange.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Mental-Health-Matters-web.pdf.
Another recent but smaller international study involving 280 academic, research and administrative staff in South African universities (van Niekerk and van Gent, 2021, https://sajp.org.za/index.php/sajp/article/view/1589/2022), found that almost 30% reported psychological distress. Notably, female staff and those with vulnerabilities were more than twice as likely as other colleagues to develop psychological distress, thereby reinforcing the gendered impact of the pandemic reported elsewhere, including in Ireland (e.g. Healthy Ireland, 2021, https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/9ef45-the-healthy-ireland-survey-2021/).
A mental health legacy
Importantly, there is evidence to suggest that the pandemic has only served to exacerbate pre-existing and increasingly deep-rooted issues related to academic mental health and wellbeing. A small number of pre-pandemic studies conducted in Ireland, showed that Third level educators experience typically high levels of work-related stress and burnout, both of which are known to be strongly correlated with poor physical and mental health (WHO, 2016, http://www.who.int/occupational_health/topics/stressatwp/en), and often leading to sick leave and absenteeism. For example, Kenny (2015) http://arrow.dit.ie/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1032&context=bescharcart, in the first study of HEI staff in Ireland, identified a number of common occupational stressors in over 1100 educators working in the (now transformed) Institute of Technology sector; these included excessive workload, unrealistic deadlines and lack of support from management. These findings were mirrored in a subsequent 2016 survey of approximately 500 lecturing staff across the HEI sector, including 185 university staff who reported the highest levels of work-related stress of all groups included in the study (Lawless et al, 2016; https://arrow.tudublin.ie/heit164/4/).
The above results are consistent with those from elsewhere. For instance, a large pre-pandemic (and aptly named) study of staff in 59 UK universities showed dramatic increases, ranging from 126% to 316%, in referrals to occupational health and counselling over an approximate six-year period (2009-2015) (Morrish, 2019, https://healthyuniversities.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/HEPI-Pressure-Vessels-Occasional-Paper-20.pdf. Excessive workloads, precarious contracts and organisational culture were all identified as key contributory factors; in an interview with the Guardian at the time of publication, the lead author, Dr Liz Morrish, described academics as “inherently vulnerable to overwork and self-criticism, but the sources of stress have multiplied to the point that many are at breaking point.” https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/may/23/higher-education-staff-suffer-epidemic-of-poor-mental-health.
A more recent follow-up survey (2020) involving 17 universities during the period 2016-2018 (Morrish and Priaulx, 2020, https://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Pressure-Vessels-II.pdf) revealed continued increases in such referrals, with women academics again more highly represented. The authors acknowledge that while these figures may reflect greater availability/access to support services, the results from both studies strongly suggest worsening mental health across the sector. Indeed, other UK-based research has found that academic staff experience higher levels of stress than in many other professions.
A step change to positive mental health
So what might be the solution (or part thereof)? Kinman and Wray, in their 2021 report, call on universities to establish a “systemic and sustainable” approach to wellbeing by increasing available supports (presumably as part of an overall mental health policy), reducing demands on staff, and promoting a more humane culture where help-seeking is encouraged rather than stigmatised. Mental health stigma is a particularly significant and enduring problem which will hopefully be tackled at a broader population level in Ireland by, amongst other things, a new Stigma Reduction Programme, one of the goals of ‘Sharing the Vision’, the Irish government’s recent mental health strategy (2020). It remains to be seen, though, when and how this will translate into action.
The implementation in Ireland (and the UK) of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) agendas and policies in the Higher Education sector (e.g. in response to the Athena SWAN Charter to which most if not all of the Irish universities and some of the Institutes of Technology have signed up, to date) should also go some way toward initiating conversations around, and tackling issues related to, gender, disability and other factors that may implicitly or explicitly impact on our mental health and wellbeing and which may exacerbate pre-existing issues. However, it seems particularly important that these kinds of initiatives are also implemented at departmental level to facilitate bottom-up approaches and practices that permeate all aspects of our work on a day-to-day basis, eventually becoming more embedded throughout individual institutions.
Importantly, universities have a duty of care to their staff which should, ideally, go beyond the (sometimes tokenistic) delivery of mental health and wellbeing workshops/courses/seminars. Undoubtedly, these have their place and can be helpful in terms of, for example, promoting mental health literacy and tackling stigma and, in turn, potentially helping to change behaviours and eventually attitudes. However, more fundamental changes are needed to institutional culture, structures and resourcing, underpinned by, amongst other things, more compassionate leadership. Indeed, a wealth of evidence indicates considerable benefits for employers, of wellbeing investment in terms of lower levels of absenteeism, less sick leave and better work-related performance and productivity (e.g. Krekel et al, 2019, https://voxeu.org/article/employee-wellbeing-productivity-and-firm-performance).
Since 2016, Universities UK has been promoting a whole university approach to mental health, and in 2018, it published a refreshed version of its new framework ‘StepChange: Mentally healthy universities’(https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/sites/default/files/field/downloads/2021-07/uuk-stepchange-mhu.pdf). Central to this framework is the belief that positive mental health is fundamental to university life and should be promoted and appropriately resourced, not only to support students, but also academic and other university staff. According to the report, a whole university or whole system approach: “recognises the effect of culture and environment and specific inequalities on mental health and wellbeing; seeks to transform the university into a healthy setting; and empowers students and staff to take responsibility for their own wellbeing” (p.12). Five key ingredients or enablers underpin this approach, including: strong and visible strategic leadership; co-production or shared decision making (i.e. ‘no decision about me without me’); effective information sharing; accommodating, celebrating and promoting diversity and inclusion (e.g. through EDI agendas mentioned earlier); and undertaking/supporting ongoing research and innovation.
There are also some interesting international exemplars which may offer useful whole university models of good practice. For example, Dr Anna Schueth, a cognitive neuroscientist and mental health advocate from Maastrict university, co-founded ‘Flourish Maastrict’, a “caring community of volunteers, educators and experts dedicated to promoting academic mental health…to reduce stigma and to increase mental health literacy across all academic campuses…” (Schueth, 2021, p.2; https://www.nature.com/articles/s41585-021-00549-y.epdf?sharing_token=c7E2jNs66-YYgBfglENkItRgN0jAjWel9jnR3ZoTv0PQpC2L6yZZ83M7mqA56z8algTHjNi_ifYLJKidZAPrkyE0oi7l-l1AVc1_a9IzzIs48c1khQyRwgJDnWTH2fCDunIfdoNSou0D0YtyV4WCZBiriIIOSXMfnBPznxH9Z-4%3D). This kind of localised initiative may offer a concrete means of promoting positive mental health at an institutional level. However, it is important to note that these types of endeavours often require one or more champions to drive them forward and, to be fully effective, appropriate buy-in and support from university management.
Collectively, the existing evidence highlights deep concerns about work-related stress, exhaustion, burnout, and mental health stigma in higher education, all of which impact, to a greater or lesser degree, on the mental health and wellbeing of academic staff. A pre-pandemic ‘pressure canister’ has already been building ‘in the system‘ and with few if any safety valves yet in place to provide a release. Both the research and anecdotal evidence to date, amplified by COVID-19, compellingly suggests that universities should strategically prioritise and support the mental health and wellbeing of their staff, and more urgently than ever before. As we find ourselves at an important crossroads in academia - perhaps now it’s time?
Sinéad McGilloway is Professor and Founder Director of the Centre for Mental Health and Community Research in the Department of Psychology and Social Sciences Institute at Maynooth University.