Stress in academia ‘not always a bad thing’

Author of new research on dealing with stress in universities says focus should shift to how to cope better with the problem

March 31, 2016
Stressed/angry man speaking on mobile phone
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Stressed? ‘We’ve never known much about what is different from the people who cope well’

Too much research analysing stress within the academic workforce is focused on those coping badly with the pressure, and there should be more emphasis on who copes best, the co-author of a new academic paper has claimed.

Ann Macaskill, head of research ethics and professor of health psychology at Sheffield Hallam University, told Times Higher Education that she gets “fed up” that the issue is always pathologised in academic writing and that there is “never any acknowledgement” that stress can actually be quite useful for scholars.

“No one’s looked at strengths and stress in academics,” she said. “We’ve never known much about what is different from the people who cope well [with stress], and most people do cope quite well.

“There’s a lot of concern about high levels of stress in academia and about them increasing. We thought it’d be quite nice to look at something positive about coping so that you can send positive messages…If you read all the stress literature, it’s all about problems and not coping.”

In “Stress among UK academics: identifying who copes best”, published in the Journal of Further and Higher Education, Professor Macaskill and her co-authors find that people with higher levels of gratitude, self-efficacy, hope and optimism, “report lower levels of stress at work, and higher levels of well-being”.

The paper states that academics with higher levels of these character strengths tend to use “problem-focused” coping techniques, which aim to eliminate stress by finding out more about the source of the problem and taking control of it. It adds that universities can run training courses to develop such skills.

Professor Macaskill said that the results, which came from an analysis of 216 academics of varying seniority at a post-92 UK university, showed that the stress-coping strategies and the training that most organisations have in place are “all a bit old hat”.

“There’s always an assumption that people aren’t coping well when you’re teaching them to cope better,” she added. “Maybe it’s my optimism as a person, [but] it’s more helpful to offer people ways of coping, rather than just saying: ‘You’re stressed.’ I do think the traditional ways of measuring stress blame the person.

“There’s never any acknowledgement that stress is normal, stress is helpful, because it motivates us. It’s excessive and unremitting stress that we can’t cope with. That’s what’s bad for us.”

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