How academia can foster researcher well-being: Five takeaways from a large-scale survey
Society relies on researchers to be creative thinkers and problem-solvers, advancing the frontiers of human knowledge and finding answers to some of the most complex problems in the world. But are their work environments designed to foster the very qualities we admire in them and expect them to embody?
Academics are often imagined to be individuals pursuing research with punishing determination, detached from many of the ordinary concerns of human life, including their own well-being. This is not merely a stereotype perpetuated among the general population. It is often an implicit expectation promoted by research cultures worldwide. Researchers are typically expected to be resilient enough to withstand any pressures related to academic life, allowing potentially unhealthy workplace cultures to thrive.
So, what can research organizations, funders, and other decision-makers in academia do to ensure that their researchers are provided an environment that is positive and nurturing? In October last year, CACTUS released discussing the findings of its global survey on researcher well-being—one of the largest of its kind, with 13,000 respondents. Many of the respondents shared their comments on what they would like organizations to do to improve their research environments. Below are five key takeaways emerging from an analysis of 1,000 of these comments.
1. Implement strict measures against hostile workplace behaviors
One of the salient findings of this survey was that 37% respondents reported having experienced some form of discrimination, harassment, or bullying at work. The percentage was higher among researchers belonging to underrepresented groups, such as mixed-race, homosexual, and female researchers. Moreover, those who reported experiencing hostile behaviors were also more likely to report having felt overwhelmed by their work situation within the month before they took the survey. The top theme among comments on how research environments can be improved was to implement measures to promote equality and prevent hostile behaviors.
Research in many academic disciplines is collaborative, often requiring researchers from diverse backgrounds to work together on projects. It is, therefore, important that organizations promote professional and constructive interactions at work and allow safe and confidential spaces for researchers to report and discuss incidents of discrimination, harassment, or bullying.
2. Adopt appropriate metrics to evaluate research performance
One of the most important steps administrators and decision-makers in academia can take is to acquire a good understanding of the daily as well as long-term challenges researchers face. One of the main findings of this survey was that while the majority (76%) of respondents were intrinsically motivated to do their research, 65% reported being under tremendous pressure to publish papers and secure grants and 46% felt that their research performance was not evaluated fairly.
Many respondents wrote about the detrimental effect of the publish-or-perish culture and the need to recognize and address this stressor. Since research performance is often evaluated based on a researcher’s publication output, evaluation metrics that focus more on quantity rather than quality of work can create considerable pressure.
Organizations need to review whether the evaluation metrics they use are effective and fair and whether researchers have access to adequate resources and support needed to perform their work without undue stress.
3. Reduce the precariousness associated with a career in academia
A career in research, especially during the early stages, is often characterized by uncertainty. About 57% of the survey respondents reported feeling unsure about their job prospects, and only 40% were satisfied with their financial situation. Ensuring job security and better pay was the second most common theme respondents mentioned when asked how organizations could support their well-being.
4. Ensure good work–life balance
Long working hours are another characteristic of academic life, with 31% respondents saying that they worked more than 50 hours in a week. Furthermore, 49% felt they had too many non-research responsibilities, 43% disagreed they had sufficient time for recreation/other activities, and 38% disagreed they got adequate sleep every night.
Research managers can regularly review if the typical workload of those who they supervise is optimal and be especially sensitive to the need for flexible working hours among researchers with caregiving responsibilities.
5. Reduce the stigma around mental health and facilitate access to professional mental health support services
Around 49% of the survey respondents said they would not discuss feelings of severe work-related stress with relevant people/authorities at work, the top reasons being that they felt nobody would be able to help address their concerns and that they were afraid of discussing such concerns because it would reflect poorly on them.
Furthermore, 63% of respondents said that they did not seek professional help, such as counselling, to deal with severe work-related stress or anxiety. The top reason for this was the feeling that they should manage work-related stress on their own since they are a part of academic life.
It is a well-documented fact that a majority of academics struggle with mental health problems. Normalization of extreme stress in academia can hamper open discussions on how it affects researcher mental health. Organizations can make efforts to create awareness and initiate discussions about mental health in their workplaces.
They can play a crucial role in ensuring that researchers who need or would like mental health support have access to it. They can offer such support on campus or have tie-ups with organizations that offer it. Resource-constrained organizations can ensure that at least information related to such support services is readily available to those who may need it.
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