Academia must prize mental health above all

July 12, 2018

Evidence that half the UK’s academics experience a damaging mental health burden (“Half of UK academics ‘suffer stress-linked mental health problems’”, News, 5 July, www.timeshighereducation.com) is startling but not new. A strikingly similar burden is found in doctoral students and academics worldwide. It is time to stop redescribing this widespread epidemic and get better at prevention.

To do this, it is tempting for academics to bemoan the inherent complexities of academic work or the notoriously high and wide demands placed on them by government, management and students. Yet, as Darren McGarvey’s recent Orwell Prize-winning book Poverty Safari reminds us in relation to poverty: “A pathological belief that only the state can resolve the issue, is both disempowering and self-defeating…This is not submission; this is to acknowledge the complexity of the matter.”

Accordingly, both academics and their workplaces have a part to play in prevention.

While many workplaces have support services for staff mental well-being, positive academic working cultures start with each of us. Too often those in academic workplaces prioritise status, roles and difference over trust and positive relationships – this is not only reflected in how management treat academic staff but also in how academic staff interact with each other. More positive working environments only ever start with how we choose to see and treat others and ourselves every day: greater empathy, open listening and mutual respect have essential roles in improving mental health in academic workplaces. Each working day offers opportunities to contribute to the mental health of others and ourselves.

Workplaces often insufficiently celebrate the determinants of academic work success. Yet, academics themselves personally link their scholarly identities more to “achievements” and “hours worked” than the ongoing effort, failures, creativity and learning that are integral to progress. These last factors are tacit yet crucial; they should be shared and venerated far more – for example, via recognition in our formal conference talks, writing and corridor conversations.

Above all, the mental health of the academic worker should be recognised as demanding far more than smartness, substantive expertise and methodological prowess. Centuries of knowledge, theory and research can help us to be happier in doing academic work; we need to use this rich work better. Academic work is seldom easy or devoid of pressing expectations: we must prioritise prevention and how we will each contribute.

Alexander M. Clark
Associate vice-president: research 
University of Alberta


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