Competition drives researchers to counselling – and exit door

Poll of 4,000 researchers reveals half have sought or wanted help for mental health problems, and four in 10 are victims of bullying or harassment

January 15, 2020
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Want out: competition is driving researchers to counselling – and the exit door

Half of researchers have sought or wanted professional help to deal with anxiety or depression, according to a landmark survey that blames competition and targets for creating an “aggressive” culture of bullying and overwork.

Thirty-four per cent of the 4,000 researchers who completed the Wellcome Trust poll, most of whom were based in the UK, said that they had sought professional help for depression or anxiety during their research career, and a further 19 per cent had wanted to do so.

Women were more likely to have sought help than men, with 38 per cent having done so, compared with 25 per cent of males. Only 44 per cent of respondents agreed that their workplace offered adequate well-being support.

Among other findings, the survey, published on 15 January, reveals:

  • Forty-three per cent of respondents said that they had experienced bullying or harassment at work, with women more likely to be victims (49 per cent) than men (34 per cent).
  • Only 37 per cent of respondents said that they would feel comfortable speaking out about bullying or harassment, and only a quarter felt that it would be acted on appropriately, with four out of 10 fearing that speaking out would damage their career.
  • Thirty-two per cent of full-time employed respondents said that they worked more than 50 hours a week, with 48 per cent saying that they had felt pressured to work long hours.
  • Seven out of 10 respondents who were employed or students said that they felt stressed on an average working day, and 49 per cent said that they had difficulty dealing with work-related stress.
  • Thirty-six per cent of respondents said that they were considering leaving the research sector within the next three years.

Exploring the reasons for such “unkind and aggressive” research conditions, 78 per cent of respondents blamed high levels of competition, with 42 per cent describing levels of competition in their workplace as “unhealthy”.

Forty-three per cent said that their institution placed more value on meeting metrics than it did on research quality, compared with 33 per cent who disagreed, with students and junior researchers being particularly at risk: 23 per cent of these respondents said that they had felt pressured by a supervisor to produce a particular result.

Across the board, a key concern was a lack of job security. Of respondents who had left research, 45 per cent said that one of the reasons for their departure was the difficulty in finding a job. Of those still in research, a mere 29 per cent felt secure pursuing a career in the sector and only 38 per cent felt that there was longevity in a research career.

Only 55 per cent of respondents said that they had received feedback on their performance in the past 12 months.

The survey was conducted as part of Wellcome’s campaign to “reimagine research”, which seeks to explore how prioritising research outputs at all costs may damage staff well-being and undermine the quality of scholarship. The trust is planning a series of town hall-style meetings across the UK to help it formulate recommendations to improve research culture.

Beth Thompson, research culture lead at Wellcome, said that the report “reveals researchers are being asked to deliver under an increasingly intense amount of pressure, providing a damning assessment on the research system and the working environment”.

“For so many to consider working in research as a vocation yet also feeling insecure in pursuing a research career is a stark call to action to create a more creative, honest and inclusive research culture,” she said.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Half of researchers seek or desire counselling, says Wellcome poll

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Reader's comments (1)

I guess it's just too easy to have a pot of research money to go with each research post, then monitor that the money is being used productively. Much simpler to have everyone competing for grants with insanely low success rates, 5% or lower, so more time is spent chasing the grant monies than actually doing any research.

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