Unionisation is essential in addressing the graduate student mental health crisis

There has been much talk about the stress suffered by the graduate students who teach and perform other essential tasks within universities. Small-scale responses will never be enough, argue Sebastian Ramirez and Kelly Swope, while Maggie Lu praises the crucial contribution of graduate teachers to her education

December 12, 2019
Crowd and speech bubble
Source: James Fryer

On 20 September, the National Labor Relations Board announced a proposal to reverse Columbia, a 2016 ruling establishing that teaching, research and laboratory assistants at private research universities in the US are statutory employees with collective bargaining rights. Graduate student labour unions have responded with thousands of public comments urging the board to preserve Columbia. Groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Economic Policy Institute have also weighed in, claiming that the new rule downplays graduate students’ economic activity and thus their right to federal labour protections. University administrations, on the other hand, are welcoming the board’s reversal. The proposed rule echoes their common argument that graduate students are “primarily students” and therefore not proper bearers of federal labour protections.

At the same time, reports about graduate students’ deteriorating mental health are multiplying. Many observers are now talking about a graduate school mental health “crisis”. A burgeoning empirical literature shows that graduate students suffer disproportionately from severe mental health problems, particularly anxiety and depression. For example, a 2018 Nature survey found that 39 per cent of PhD candidates across 26 countries and 234 institutions scored in the moderate-to-severe depression range. “The prevalence of depression and anxiety symptoms among Economics PhD students”, the authors of a 2018 Harvard study write, “is comparable to the prevalence found in incarcerated populations.” And the list goes on.

Compounding the problem, on-campus mental health services are already struggling to deal with the increasing mental health needs of their undergraduate populations. “University student mental health care”, one headline reads, “is at the tipping point.” Counsellors, overburdened with mounting caseloads, are starting to feel their clients' pain. For graduate students, the combination of increasing need and decreasing access to care is indeed a genuine crisis without a foreseeable end.

While unionisation and the graduate student mental health crisis may seem like unrelated issues, we want to draw on a variety of research to argue that the two are intimately connected. Graduate student unionisation, we conclude, needs to be fundamentally reframed as a mental health issue. Having graduate-student-led labour unions at all US research universities, private and public, is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for solving the graduate school mental health crisis.

Social scientists have been studying the transfer of moods across groups for decades. They refer to this as “emotional contagion”, a complex, dynamic expression of the fact that “no matter how strongly we perceive ourselves as autonomous entities emphasising our individuality, our affective states are linked with those of our fellow human beings”.

Three recent articles show that stress travels across groups. The first found that 10 to 40 per cent of research subjects exhibited “full-blown” hormonal stress responses when they observe others who are experiencing stress, resulting in "significant potential negative consequences…in everyday life”. Another observed similar effects in elementary schoolchildren with stressed-out teachers, highlighting, in the authors’ words, “the importance of preventing teacher burnout and promoting well-being among teachers by offering the necessary support, resources, and professional development opportunities teachers may need”. The third found that “individuals can detect stress in others, even in the absence of overt context-dependent stress cues" such as a stressful topic of conversation, and "have cardiac responses that are related to those of the speaker”.

What about anxiety and depression? One study found that depressive symptoms in individuals are strongly correlated with friends’ and neighbours’ depression levels. “This association”, the authors note, “extended up to three degrees of separation (to one’s friends’ friends’ friends)”, concluding that depression “can be observed to travel along social networks”. 

In light of all this, the most effective intervention strategy would be to treat the problem on a universal scale. So far, however, universities have tended to focus on small-scale strategies for coping with the fact that “graduate school is hard”. “Work-life balance”, a term imported from corporate environments, is now the watchword of graduate education. Proponents of this small-scale strategy advise universities to organise stress-management workshops and thesis-writing support groups, foster public discussions about mental health and encourage students to talk to each other about therapy.

For example, Harvard researchers recommend that departments improve their internal culture through initiatives such as encouraging students to do meaningful and useful work, showing more concern for student well-being and success, destigmatising failure, communicating clearly and frequently with students and “encourag[ing] brainstorming of creative ways that students and faculty can support each other”.

A recent review of 17 studies on doctoral students’ well-being confirms that “cultural change” is the prominent approach to the problem. “Almost all” the studies emphasise the need for “developing optimal resistance strategies to enhance well-being”. These include: “teaching doctoral students to affirm themselves daily and develop positive thinking patterns”, implementing “academic climate or discrimination” policies, “fostering peer groups” and organising seminars on time management. While we acknowledge the value of self-care, changing departmental culture and nurturing positive interpersonal relationships, in our view this small-scale, “cultural change” approach fails to acknowledge two core facts about the graduate school mental health crisis: first, graduate students and their relationships are embedded in a broader work and organisational context; and second, this work and organisational context has a significant impact on graduate student mental health.

Bridge of clasped hands
James Fryer

A recent study by Belgian social scientists finds that “work and organizational context” has a significant causal bearing on graduate student mental health. They apply an organisational health framework to PhD students in Flanders, premised on the notion that environmental factors contribute significantly to individuals’ stress and well-being.

Previous organisational health research, the authors note, “find[s] significant emotional costs when job control is low”, identifies “the interplay between work and home [as] a significant potential source of stress impacting mental health” and shows that “workers’ participation in decision making...reduce[s] job-related emotional strain, job dissatisfaction, absenteeism and turnover intentions”. They expected to find similar results in the context of graduate work.

After measuring the prevalence of mental health problems among the Flanders PhD students, the researchers examined the role of work and organisational context in aggravating these problems. Their multivariate analysis shows that work-family conflict was the most important predictor of psychological distress (at least two symptoms of poor mental health) and risk of a common psychiatric disorder (at least four symptoms). Other strong predictors related to job demands, job control and career prospects. Finally, they found that “a closed [university] decision making culture” has a “significant impact on risk of psychiatric disorder”.

If, as we suggested above, all graduate students are vulnerable to mental health problems, the study shows that this shared vulnerability is in large part a function of their shared work and organisational context. A solution adequate to the scope of the problem, then, must go beyond small-scale cultural change. The Belgian researchers close their paper with the following recommendations: “Our analyses suggest that universities will benefit in terms of PhD students’ mental health when they facilitate management of work-family balance and workload, [and] design open decision-making procedures.”

Graduate students are increasingly vulnerable to present and future economic precarity, which bears directly on work-family conflict, job demands and job control. They must develop strategies for teaching, researching and writing more efficiently on shorter and shorter timelines in the hope that they will be rewarded with a slightly less precarious position. They feel guilty about not working hard enough or compare themselves to peers who seem to have it all figured out. The question of job control barely registers under these extreme conditions. One must have and keep a job before one can think about controlling it.

If universities are to “facilitate management of work-family balance and workload”, they must address the issue of graduate student economic precarity. Where workers have less control over pay, insurance and decision-making procedures, they make less money, have lower-quality insurance and are increasingly subject to the arbitrary authority of their bosses. The closed decision-making cultures of the typical research university allocate very little workplace control to graduate students. This deepens students’ vulnerability to economic (and psychological) precarity and enables further administrative growth at the expense of stable academic jobs. Graduate student mental health deteriorates as a direct result. In our view, then, the most efficacious means for ameliorating the graduate mental health crisis is to put more workplace control in the hands of graduate students. The evidence tells us that the best way to do this is through unionisation.

As yet, labour unions have received little attention in connection to the graduate school mental health crisis. When they are mentioned in this context, they are usually credited with calling for improved campus mental health services or raising political consciousness about the crisis. But if we are correct that addressing economic precarity and administrative growth is most efficaciously done through unionisation, then graduate labour unions are far more than just committed advocates for students’ well-being. Indeed, we expect that having graduate labour unions in all US research universities would have a clinically significant positive impact on graduate student mental health over time.

Labour unions do at least three things that the small-scale “cultural change” approach described above cannot:

First, they give graduate students a formal mechanism for asserting greater job control and binding university administrations to employment contracts that secure longer-term economic stability. Most graduate students in the United States do not directly negotiate the terms of their pay, medical insurance plans, professional advisory relationships or work hours. As a result, they often live in economic precarity, pay significant out-of-pocket costs for mental health care and other services, are overworked or abused at work, and have no way of addressing systemic problems. Labour unions can help tackle these problems as what they are: symptoms of low job control that have a negative impact on mental health.

Second, graduate labour unions increase non-competitive interpersonal contact between graduate students, fostering a community based on shared interests and a common purpose. With so many graduate students reporting that toxic interpersonal competition and a sense of purposelessness negatively impact their mental health, unions – organisations built on purposeful solidarity – introduce substantial cultural changes to the academic workplace.

Third, graduate labour unions streamline communication between graduate students and high-level administrators about workplace organisational issues. Without unions, graduate students rely upon the goodwill and political savvy of lower-level administrators to channel their workplace-related concerns to higher administrators. This process is inefficient and delivers inconsistent results. Placing everyone at the contract table together increases not only the transparency but also the efficiency of communication between the top and bottom levels of the university hierarchy. It multiplies opportunities for higher administrators to have substantive interface with graduate students and reduces the latter’s alienation from administrative authority, imbuing them with a greater sense of efficacy and standing in their workplace.

We are not claiming that labour unions alone would solve the mental health crisis in graduate schools. Yet it is clear that features of the academic workplace are causally linked to mental health problems. So we are saying that labour unions are a necessary, though not sufficient, means for improving the mental health of graduate students.

The lack of an overarching legal standard for graduate collective bargaining is one reason that unions have not been integral to the mental health discussion. Federal law permits US states to implement widely varying standards with regard to public university employees’ collective bargaining rights. Although graduate unions have existed at some public research universities for decades, their eligibility to bargain has been determined on a state-by-state basis since the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. This has created a situation in which dozens of US states exclude public-university graduate students from collective bargaining, while others permit it. For private universities, meanwhile, federal labour law has gone back and forth since the 1970s in its interpretation of graduate students’ employment status. The NLRB has changed its position several times as to whether teaching courses, grading papers and working in laboratories legally constitutes work. The current precedent, set by the board’s 2016 Columbia decision, is that such activities do constitute work, meaning that postgraduates at private universities currently have the right to bargain (the board’s new proposal would change this). Still, the legally unstable definition of graduate work has enabled many private universities to argue either (1) that their graduate students are not really workers or (2) that they are “primarily students” and so defining them as workers would negatively impact on their education.

Such arguments are easily refuted. The National Labor Relations Act construes work broadly as value-generating economic activity. Consider the tasks that graduate students perform daily at most private and public research universities: designing and teaching introductory-level undergraduate courses; grading and guest-lecturing for upper-level undergraduate courses; researching and editing faculty publications; producing original research for conferences and journals; working part- or full-time as laboratory assistants; and more. These tasks generate substantial economic value, and if graduate students did not perform them, life at US research universities would come to a screeching halt.

As for the “primarily students” argument, a recent study shows that unionised graduate students enjoy the same or better relationships with their faculty advisers as their non-unionised counterparts.

But the problem here is not just that universities misstate the impact of work on graduate education. As Georgetown PhD student Hailey Huget suggests in a recent article, the education/work distinction itself blurs under critical scrutiny: if work is just value-generating economic activity, and studying is an activity that enhances one’s capacity to generate economic value, then studying is already economic activity in a relevant sense and may warrant compensation.

Huget’s argument may seem radical, but it really isn’t. Private-sector companies routinely pay new hires for job training and even subsidise employees to pursue continuing education. They recognise that job training and higher education enhance their workers’ value-generating capacity. In the case of graduate students, the link is even stronger: when they apprentice in labs or as instructors of record or fulfil professional development requirements, they are not only enhancing their capacity to generate future value but simultaneously generating immediate value for the university.

The flimsiness of the “not workers” and “primarily students” arguments suggests that the fundamental reason that universities do not encourage unionisation has little to do with whether graduate students are proper bearers of collective bargaining rights. Instead, universities discourage unionisation because it comes with substantial costs.

The fact that there is so much momentum behind shifting workplace control towards university administrators has thus far prevented universities from addressing the fundamental causes of graduate students’ mental health woes. Many private research universities have actively discouraged or tried to thwart graduate unionisation since the NLRB’s Columbia decision, offering weak arguments about its legal reasoning and insinuating (against empirical evidence) that labour unions harm graduate education. Given the extant restrictions on graduate collective bargaining in many US states, not to mention the bitter battles going on at Columbia University, the University of Chicago and other private universities, it is unlikely that universities will yield voluntarily to graduate unionisation. A national movement for graduate unionisation led by graduate students is the only way to transform universities’ current financial and administrative priorities. It also induces universities to explain how they can promote graduate student well-being without supporting graduate unionisation.

Fortunately, the NLRB’s 2016 Columbia decision has breathed new life into the graduate unionisation movement nationwide. Reframing unionisation as a mental-health issue enlivens this movement by providing graduate students with a powerful moral reason to organise.

A nationwide unionisation push must span many generations of graduate students and include legal, political and grassroots strategies to prevail. But it ought to and can prevail, especially if graduate students coordinate and cooperate across the public/private divide (the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions is a great start). For labour unions to have the maximum impact on graduate students’ mental health, they must exist in as many research universities as possible. This is because university administrations and academic workers must abide by systemic professional and economic standards in order to remain competitive. The policies and practices of one school reciprocally affect the policies and practices of others.

Universal does not have to mean uniform. There are many available approaches to graduate unionisation. Some graduate unions, such as Harvard’s, have tried to go through the NLRB’s legal process, while others, such as Georgetown’s, have opted not to and still managed to get to the bargaining table. Whatever the local strategy may be, one immediate task for graduate students everywhere is to apply a mental health framework to their unionisation drives. The authors’ experience as union organisers at Vanderbilt University may offer a model. For the past two years, as part of our drive to build campus-wide support for a recognition vote, our union has been framing graduate student mental health as a workplace organisation issue. Last year, we authored and lobbied with our Graduate Student Council for a Mental Health Bill of Rights and Responsibilities that is now receiving national media attention. Making this concrete contribution to the improvement of mental health services on our campus has done more to increase our visibility and credibility than any other initiative we have undertaken.

The stakes are high. Universities cannot continue to evade the facts about this life-defining issue. If administrators wish to do something real to address the graduate school mental health crisis, they could start by getting out of the way of graduate unionisation. Since this is unlikely to happen, it is up to graduate students to take control of their own mental health. A future culture of academic flourishing will not replace the current culture of academic affliction unless graduate student solidarity prevails system-wide.

Sebastian Ramirez and Kelly Swope are PhD candidates in philosophy at Vanderbilt University and union organisers with Graduate Workers United.

ripping down darkness
James Fryer

The student perspective

Last quarter, 66 per cent of my teachers were graduate students. Yet the University of Chicago continues to deny that graduate students are lawful employees or workers. In a 2017 National Labor Relations Board hearing, its legal counsel dismissed such students as “not working, but teaching”.

This has now also become a national political issue. In September, the Trump administration proposed a new rule that would exclude graduate students from employee status, stripping them of bargaining rights that the Obama administration granted them in a 2016 decision.

UChicago students, graduates and undergraduates alike, have long fought for their voices to be heard. In June 2019, the Graduate Student Union organised a strike in the hope of persuading the school to voluntarily recognise the union and negotiate with it about fairer wages, adequate healthcare and other employee rights. A rally was held with more than 400 protesters and speakers, including former and present state senators such as Daniel Biss and Robert Peters. Senator Bernie Sanders sent an email to Chicago area supporters to join the picket line and a letter to UChicago’s president urging him to allow unionisation. A sign outside Cobb Lecture Hall read “the University works because we do”. 

Despite the large turnout, UChicago remained firm in its stance in a university-wide email sent out after the strike. The provost, Daniel Diermeier, stated that “graduate students are students, first and foremost. They come to the university to study, to learn how to teach future generations of students”; unionisation could “undermine” their ability to attend to the needs of students.

Asked about the role of graduate students in grading papers and exams, David Nirenberg, dean of the Social Sciences Division, testified that the extra work involved in making sure that the graduate student grades "in a way that is consistent and reflects what you’re trying to communicate" means that, in practice, “having someone [else] grading is not a relief to me”. But this is only a tiny part of what graduate students do. They perform all the functions of a teacher, including holding office hours, leading trips, and planning and preparing discussion sections. One might say that the graduate student system is the backbone of the university.

Another dean testified that graduate students teach for their own benefit and that it was just a “byproduct” that “the undergraduate class will potentially gain additional information”. Yet in reality it is not a potential byproduct but a given that undergraduate classes gain information from taking notes and asking questions. Last quarter, for example, a graduate student taught a section on global warming, and his dedication to helping us succeed was very evident. He made sure to recap the last class at the beginning of each session, to ask if we had any individual questions and to send us relevant articles afterwards. So when he told us that he was going to be joining the picket line, I knew that he was acting not only in his own interests, but also in those of all his undergraduate students.

All over the US, graduate labour unions have been struggling to make administrations listen. It is crucial that we continue the struggle to overturn Trump’s proposed new rule and to get graduate students recognised as teachers as well as students. 

Maggie Lu is a second-year student at the University of Chicago. 


Print headline: Strength in numbers

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