Together we can make academia an environment where we thrive

Work psychologists Matthijs Bal, Edina Dóci and Zoe Sanderson outline their manifesto to conquer the mental health crisis in universities

July 26, 2019
Mental health

There is a mental health crisis in universities. More than half of UK academics experience high or very high levels of work related stress according to a University and College Union survey. Meanwhile another study has found that early career academics are at least six times more likely to develop mental illness than people working outside academia. 

Universities typically (if at all) address these problems by using psychological interventions to make academics more resilient to stress. Prescribing cognitive behavioural therapy or meditation for stressed-out researchers suggests that the reason we cannot cope lies with us as individuals. This approach fails to address and treat the fundamental sources of the problem. 

The reason for the burnout epidemic in universities is not that overly sensitive people choose an academic career, but that work in academia is organised in ways that make us sick. 

Some of these factors include an obsession with performance metrics in universities; perpetual competition among academics; the expectation of excellence in all areas; job insecurity and the rise of temporary and unstable contracts; the utilisation of free academic labour by publishing houses; the pressure to publish in high-impact journals; and the pressure to obtain external funding. 

Psychology is often seen as the ultimate tool to understand and “fix” mental health problems: to improve individuals’ coping strategies, to enhance their resilience and adaptiveness, so that they can function better and become more productive in their work. 

However, helping individuals adapt to the system that caused their suffering in the first place is clearly a limited and sometimes misguided use of psychological knowledge. 

A more responsible approach to psychology would provide both a systemic analysis of the causes of individual suffering, support for individuals in responding to it, and the empowerment of individuals as change-makers on the institutional level.  

Individuals have agency that extends beyond their ability to merely cope and function at work. We can take action aimed at changing the rules of the system that makes academics collectively miserable. For this, we need a collective form of agency. 

 Academia is ultimately constituted of us academics so we must recognise our own responsibility in perpetuating the competitive logic of the academic system. Instead of competing, we should envision and try to create an academic system in which we want to work. We, a group of work and organisational psychologists, have written a manifesto that describes how this might happen. 

In our manifesto, we offer 10 recommendations for a sustainable future for universities, in which academics can both thrive and conduct meaningful work that delivers on academia’s social responsibilities. 

We call on academics to do research that is truly independent from corporate agendas, to prioritise societal interests instead, and engage in continuous dialogue with other stakeholders to identify and research the most relevant issues. 

We collectively want to stop aspiring to be the mythical, “ideal academic” who delivers excellence in every aspect of their job (and often pays with their health for pursuing this fantasy). Instead, we need to co-construct healthier objectives and standards, ways of working that are more collaborative, caring and relational, and much less individualistic, competitive and self-exploitative in nature. 

We invite academics to break the silence in universities and engage in dialogue with colleagues about discrimination, bullying and other misconduct in academia.

We invite academics who are in managerial roles to remain aware of their primary responsibility for the well-being of their employees. We must strive to prevent health problems among academics, and if they occur, to notice their early signals and respond to them carefully. 

The currently dominant performance management approach in academia builds on the extensive use of quantitative metrics to measure and compare the performance of academics, which promotes poor science, amplifies stress and is detrimental for academics’ intrinsic motivation for doing research. 

We should set our own professional objectives and processes through democratic dialogue with each other and manage our own performance in sensible ways. 

Work psychology as a field has been nearly entirely incorporated into mainstream management research in the past several decades, absorbing neoliberal assumptions into its core principles. With this manifesto, we are reclaiming our territory. We are reminding ourselves and fellow work psychologists of our responsibility to use our expertise to serve the well-being of employees, both in academia and in other sectors across society.

To “respect the dignity and worth of all people, and the rights of individuals” is a key responsibility of psychologists, as stated in the ethics code of the American Psychological Association. 

We want to live up to these responsibilities by continuing the work we started with this manifesto as part of a movement for change. But we recognise that the problems we identify are common across many academic disciplines, so we invite all academics who are sympathetic to our agenda to sign the manifesto.  

By building collective agency, we can begin to change our academic system from the bottom up, creating a future in which academics can do more socially relevant work in healthier ways.

Edina Dóci is assistant professor in the department of Management and Organization in the School of Business and Economics at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Zoe Sanderson is assistant teacher in the School of Economics, Finance and Management at the University of Bristol and Matthijs Bal is professor of responsible management at the University of Lincoln.

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