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Pandemic burnout will slow restart of research

Written by: Jenny Pickerill
Published on: 24 Aug 2021

Person on bench

Source: Getty

When a colleague asked me to write a brief abstract for a paper I realised how unable I was to string together a coherent sentence. It was October 2020 and we were scrambling to support students who had returned to campus only to realise face-to-face teaching would be severely limited and infection rates were rapidly increasing. I am forever grateful to Enora Robin for writing my abstract.

Since Covid started I have taken medical leave three times for burnout. Despite 30 years in academia and plenty of experience of work-induced stress, this is the first time I have suffered from the numbing, paralysing, disorientating exhaustion of burnout. The past 17 months have been about survival. For many of us research became impossible.

Even if I had a moment when a new government or university directive didn’t arrive in my inbox, a struggling student didn’t need extra dissertation support or a colleague wasn’t grieving the loss of a loved one to Covid, I could not switch into academic writing. I did not have the clarity of thought or the energy. More than that, because my research was not immediately going to help us survive Covid it felt futile, an unnecessary luxury at a time of global crisis.

The impact of Covid on academic research has been markedly uneven. I was jealous of those who appeared able to shut themselves off from the world to write or whose research was possible from their homes during multiple lockdowns. Most academics had escalating expectations of care – in and beyond the academy – coupled with insurmountable restrictions such as being unable to continue fieldwork, data collection, lab analysis, archive research, no access to books in our offices or libraries, or those we work with having other pressing demands to deal with.

This unevenness has been documented in a marked decrease in who is publishing and applying for grants, with a fall in women leading papers and starting new research projects. But, more than this, the impacts of Covid on research have been particularly acute for those on temporary contracts, PhDs or early career academics. There has been paltry support for PhD researchers, with many simply told to move to online data collection or to redesign their projects. These colleagues have had to sustain their research and compete in a shrinking job market as universities used Covid-induced austerity to freeze new appointments. The uneven impact of Covid on academic research is resulting in academia losing those who were already most marginalised.

Expectations of care have also been highly uneven. Obviously, those left to homeschool children or care for an elderly friend or relative have had impossible demands on their time. But many of us also experienced an escalation of demands to care in academia – for our students’ well-being, to support researchers and each other. I was surprised as a head of department to be so explicitly informed that my role was to support the well-being of all my colleagues. While the emotional labour involved in being a female leader in academia finally gained visibility, it was bound up in gendered expectations of responsibilities of care in uncomfortable ways.

As we tentatively transition to a changed world of “living with” Covid many of us are exhausted. It is vital that we are able, and supported by our institutions, to forgive ourselves for “merely” surviving however we could. Let’s not forget the trauma, fear, grief and uncertainty so many of us have endured. We need to rekindle our research but in so doing understand that this is a slow process. Whole new research directions have opened up for some; others need to begin piecing together what is left, and potentially start anew. This takes considerable time.

It is useful that there is a shift towards quality not quantity of research and that research is being acknowledged as more than outputs and grants, but also knowledge exchange and creative engagements.

In restarting my research, I initially sought out research-only days (moving them to Mondays where I might have the energy to write), writing retreats, and breaking down seemingly gigantic tasks into smaller objectives.

But I have realised that as much as I might like to, now is not the time to prioritise my own research. Indeed we should be primarily supporting precarious colleagues’ work, those who do not have time for slow scholarship. I am spending the summer reading and editing others’ research. We need to find ways that enable journals to prioritise reviewing and publishing early career scholars and to support their grant applications.

Broader dynamics are in play here. Teaching expectations have become unsustainable, with a significant ratcheting up of hours of contact, “hybrid” teaching approaches, and innovative multi-format delivery. We have to push back on how much time we can devote to teaching in order to reclaim our research.

But neither can we fill gaps with casualised labour – the very colleagues who have already struggled most during Covid. Above all, we need to be wary of the ways that this ongoing crisis is used to habituate us to new levels of stress and precarity, and instead carefully seek to reclaim the vital time needed for all of us to do our research, not just the lucky few who were more productive during lockdown.

Jenny Pickerill is professor of environmental geography at the University of Sheffield.