As we exit the traumatic year of 2020, it’s worth asking about the collective mental state of the global research community.
A recent report from the CACTUS Foundation (an initiative by the for-profit Cactus Communications that aims to help researchers grow and create global impact through their research) assessed researcher wellbeing through a wide-ranging survey covering researchers’ work, personal lives, and attitudes towards the future.
“Joy and Stress Triggers: A global survey on mental health among researchers,” collected data in six areas of wellbeing over eight months from 13,000 researchers in 169 countries “While studies on the topic are not unknown,” the authors wrote, “there is nothing on the same scale in terms of sample size, demographic spread, and geographic reach as this survey.” Some 39 percent of respondents were from academic faculty, “making this one of the biggest studies of that group on this topic.”
In general, the survey finds a stark difference in responses between the experiences and perceptions of Western and Asian researchers, between early-career and senior staff, and between those in dominant and marginalized communities.
The survey was conducted between October 2019 and July 2020, and so included a substantial window for response during COVID pandemic. “While we have attempted to allow for this when reviewing the data, it should be noted that different countries and even regions or towns have experienced the pandemic very differently and at different times. It is not possible to fully allow for this in the analysis.”
CACTUS Communications’ Calrinda Cerejo, Mriganka Awati, and Andrea Hayward wrote the report, supported by research collaborators, advisors, and partners from both physical and social science. “We would like [the report] to be just the starting point for an important global conversation on mental health in academia and a movement towards a more positive research culture.”
Feeling overwhelmed at work
Asked about their mental states while working, 38 percent of respondents stated that they had felt overwhelmed by their work situation fairly or very often in the previous month, with PhD scholars, female respondents and those working outside their home country more likely to report these feelings than their counterparts. Geography also factored into results: “[R]espondents working in the US, UK, Brazil, Germany, and Australia were more likely to state they felt overwhelmed frequently; those working in Japan, China, and South Korea were less likely to state they felt overwhelmed frequently, despite respondents in Asia being more likely to state they worked more hours.”
“Most academics are overwhelmed, even the ones who are successful in terms of being productive researchers, busy teachers and efficient administrators,” the report quotes a post-doctoral research fellow in Africa. “But they seem like the norm and everyone who struggles is not, and this needs to be disrupted and changed.”
Work environments in research
Only 8 percent of respondents strongly agreed that their organization had effective policies encouraging work-life balance, with researchers in academia being the most likely to report working 50+ hours a week, higher than any other sector.
A lack of policies in this area appeared perhaps to have a strong impact on our respondents: 20% of those who strongly agreed that there was a lack of policies around work-life balance were working in excess of 60 hours a week, compared to 13% in the sample overall. In addition, 59% of respondents reporting insufficient work-life balance policies indicated that they had felt overwhelmed very or fairly often in the previous month, compared to 38% of respondents overall and only 28% of respondents who indicated that strict work-life balance policies were in place.
Additionally, 48 percent of individuals who thought that their organizations did not have strict policies against discrimination, bullying, and harassment reported that they frequently felt overwhelmed at work in the previous month. “I’m worried about sexism in academia in general and this might make me want to leave after finishing my PhD,” said one respondent in Europe, “even though my current work environment is good.”
Current work and future career outlook
While 76 percent of individuals agreed that their work gave them a sense of purpose, 35 percent of respondents also reported doubting their work achievements and feeling of belonging in academia. Twenty-eight percent stated that they were unhappy about academia as a career choice.
Work culture in research
Some 65 percent of respondents indicated that they were under tremendous pressure to publish papers, secure grants, and complete projects.
Respondents in academia reported the highest numbers of being under continuous pressure to maintain a good reputation in the research community at 58 percent.
All respondents were asked to agree or disagree with “I am unhappy about the overall culture in academia,” with 48 percent either agreeing or strongly agreeing. The report cited “huge differences by sector and role” in these responses, with the highest proportion of unhappy respondents from academia. Furthermore, PhD scholars and post-doctoral researchers were most unhappy (56 and 57 percent respectively), while professors were more content (35 percent)
Sixty percent of mixed-race researchers, 45 percent of researchers identifying as homosexual, and 42 percent of female researchers reported experiencing discrimination, harassment, or bullying at work.
Some 43 percent of respondents said that they had little time for other activities and 38 percent disagreed about getting adequate sleep or being satisfied with their financial situation, with those in academia the most likely to disagree.
One lecturer in North America explained that “it’s not about free time, it’s a lack of free energy. Who can do hobbies when you’re physically, mentally, and emotionally drained?”
Seeking health and support
Almost half, 49 percent, reported that they would not discuss feelings of severe work situation stress or anxiety with relevant authorities, and those working 60+ hours a week were the most likely to not report. “Asian researchers,” the authors wrote, “were by far the least likely to say they had sought professional help for work-related issues, and were the most likely to say they felt they should manage work-related pressures on their own.”
Many felt that in asking for help, their requests would be ignored, or it would harm their reputation.
The report concludes by highlighting immediate issues that need attention in research communities, such as addressing bullying and discrimination, improving work-life balance, and changing the expectation that excessive stress is just part of the job. But how should institutions prioritize these pressing issues? Organizations and research communities should enforce stricter policies against workplace harassment, prioritize work-life balance policies and developing confidential support systems within institutions to create space for researchers to not only focus on their work, but also their mental wellbeing in the years to come.