World mental health day: dealing with the pressures of academe

Today is World Mental Health Day, and Matthew Flinders argues that although changes in individual behaviour can help, systemic change is really needed to ease the mental health burden on academics

October 10, 2020
World mental health day
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James Axtell’s The Pleasures of Academe offers both a celebration and defence of higher education and is in many ways a response to the increasing “pressures of academe”. Axtell’s book is focused on the US and the lazy caricatures of overpaid and underworked professors who neglect their teaching responsibilities in favour of research and writing. Similarly slothful stereotypes are increasingly common in the UK, and it’s almost impossible to look at books such as A. H. Halsey’s Decline of Donnish Dominion, written in 1992, and not think they are discussing some far-off and long-forgotten mystical age of academe.

It is, of course, too easy to get wrapped up in nostalgic reflections on some golden age of academia. If we are brutally honest, Halsey was really only interested in the decline of “donnish dominion” at Oxford, but the nature of an academic career has changed almost fundamentally in recent decades as a consequence of wave after wave of market-driven reform agendas and a constant emphasis on “continuing excellence” in every element of a traditional academic appointment − teaching, research and administration.

A fourth dimension has been added in recent years in the form of a need to demonstrate the “impact”, “relevance” and “social value” of research. This has, in turn, spawned a burgeoning literature on the past, present and future of universities and the decline of traditional academic instincts. From the “honest broker” to the “slow professor” through to “rank hypocrisies” and “universities at war”, I’ve heard it all a million times over − not to mention the REF, TEF and soon-to-be KEF!

But what I am not hearing enough about is the mental health and well-being of those academics who have to cope with these ever-increasing pressures.

The evidence, however, is clear.

Advance HE’s annual Postgraduate Research Experience Survey of more than 50,000 postgraduate researchers finally incorporated new well-being questions for 2019. The full report is available online and reveals striking levels of anxiety – only 14 per cent reported that they had low anxiety.

The journal Nature runs a global annual survey for doctoral researchers. The survey had more than 6,000 respondents in 2019 and featured a question exploring mental health, with 36 per cent of participants saying they had sought help for anxiety or depression caused by their PhD studies.

Add to this the potential impact of Covid and the manner in which higher education has rapidly closed down the “soft” employment opportunities (lab demonstrators, seminar teachers, part-time research posts) that were in fact lifeline positions that allowed many PhD students and postdocs to stay in academia. The flipside is the increasing expectations suddenly placed on tenured staff to deliver more bang for the proverbial buck in the form of more teaching, to higher standards, while knowing deep down that their research profile must be sustained. Something has to give, or the system risks creating a tsunami of stress.

The irony of 2020 was that it began with the honest reflection and high hopes surrounding the Wellcome Trust’s groundbreaking report on research culture. What researchers thought about the culture they work in, to paraphrase the title of the report, was that it overemphasised quantity to the detriment of quality, contained too many perverse incentives not to collaborate and was riddled with embedded structural inequalities that locked in significant challenges in relation to equality, inclusion and diversity. The research culture was too often a toxic culture. “For researchers,” the report concluded, “poor research culture is leading to stress, anxiety, mental health problems, strain on personal relationships and a sense of isolation and loneliness at work”.

One great but generally underacknowledged element of the report was that it revealed the systemic weaknesses that create and sustain “the pressures of academe” and, through this, turned what are too often viewed as private problems into professional issues.

This is a key point. There is an individualisation and stigma surrounding poor mental health in academe that has helped establish a culture of silence. And yet, as I know from personal experience, once you pluck up the courage to whisper about your weaknesses and worries – the simple frailties of being human – you realise that what you thought was a private problem is in fact endemic across the profession.

Academics, especially, at the beginning of their careers, are too often expected to be superheroes in the sense of excelling in every sphere, being able to work long hours, be “world-class” and “excellent” and able to amass glittering prizes and top-ranked publications.

There’s simply no place for the late starters who blossom later in their careers, or for those that want to range widely across disciplinary boundaries − and the notion of a “braided career” in which people move in and out of academe throughout their working life is almost unknown.

A culture of long hours, unrealistic expectations and the inevitability of rejection are defined as things to be “dealt with” rather than professional issues to be managed in a supportive and nurturing way. This serves to instil a chilling effect across the sector, especially on those who lack tenure and are therefore reluctant to acknowledge a need for support.

There is nothing wrong with feeling the pressure, with struggling to cope or wondering if you’re really cut out to be an academic. I’ve been there, it’s not fun and everyone − even the most established professors − needs a bit of support at various points in their careers. If there’s one thing academe does not need, it’s an increase in regimented robots and genetically modified lecturers with the skin of a rhino.

Talking helps, walking helps, and I find that running helps even more. But if we’re really serious about considering what “Mental Health for All” (the theme for World Mental Health Day this year) really means and why it matters then the most effective strides forward are likely to come through bold national leadership within the higher education, research and development sector.

There’s no point investing in more staff counselling or mindfulness sessions if people are expected to return to a workplace that simply hasn’t changed, and it’s systemic changes, not just individual-level adjustments, that are needed.

The pressures of academe can never, and should never, be totally removed, but it’s time to shift the balance and allow us all to rediscover the pleasures of academe.

Matthew Flinders is founding director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre and professor of politics at the University of Sheffield. He has written and presented several documentaries for BBC Radio 4 and is vice-president of the Political Studies Association of the UK.

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Reader's comments (1)

The world's largest survey on academic researchers' experience of mental health has just been released. Over 13,000 respondents from over 160 countries, representing all experience levels and with a strong representation of 'minority' groups. It is available from free here: https://cactusglobal.com/mental-health-survey/

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