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Research Questions

  1. • How are 'mental health' and 'wellbeing' understood in the context of research environments?
  2. • What is currently known about researchers' mental health and wellbeing, and does it differ from that of other populations?
  3. • What interventions are used to support researchers, and what evidence is there of their effectiveness?
  4. • What are the strengths and limitations of the evidence base in this area?

This study aimed to establish what is known about the mental health of researchers based on the existing literature. There is limited published evidence on the prevalence of specific mental health conditions among researchers. The majority of the identified literature on prevalence relates to work-related stress among academic staff and postgraduate students in university settings.

Survey data indicate that the majority of university staff find their job stressful. Levels of burnout appear higher among university staff than in general working populations and are comparable to 'high-risk' groups such as healthcare workers. The proportions of both university staff and postgraduate students with a risk of having or developing a mental health problem, based on self-reported evidence, were generally higher than for other working populations. Large proportions (>40 per cent) of postgraduate students report symptoms of depression, emotion or stress-related problems, or high levels of stress.

Factors including increased job autonomy, involvement in decision making and supportive management were linked to greater job satisfaction among academics, as was the amount of time spent on research. Opportunities for professional development were also associated with reduced stress. UK higher education (HE) and research staff report worse wellbeing, as compared to staff in other sectors, in most aspects of work that can affect workers' stress levels.

The evidence around the effectiveness of interventions to support the mental health of researchers specifically is thin. Few interventions are described in the literature and even fewer of those have been evaluated.

Key Findings

The evidence base

  • The majority of the identified literature on prevalence relates to wellbeing and work-related stress (rather than clinically defined mental health conditions) among academic staff and postgraduate students in university settings. There is little evidence on researchers in other settings, such as industry.

Prevalence

  • Survey data indicate that the majority of university staff find their job stressful. Levels of burnout appear higher among university staff than in general working populations and are comparable to 'high-risk' groups such as healthcare workers.
  • The proportions of both university staff and postgraduate students with a risk of having or developing a mental health problem, based on self-reported evidence, were generally higher than for other working populations.
  • Large proportions (>40 per cent) of postgraduate students report symptoms of depression, emotion or stress-related problems, or high levels of stress.

Environmental factors

  • In large-scale surveys, UK higher education staff have reported worse wellbeing than staff in other types of employment (including education, and health and social work) in the areas of work demands, change management, support provided by managers and clarity about one's role.
  • The only area where higher education staff have reported higher wellbeing in large-scale surveys is in job control, though even here results are mixed across studies.
  • PhD students face similar challenges to other researchers and higher education staff.

Interventions

  • Evidence around the effectiveness of interventions to support the mental health of researchers is thin. Few interventions are described in the literature and even fewer of those have been evaluated.

Recommendations

Based on the evidence gaps identified and the information available, we suggest the following avenues for further research on this topic:

  • Study the prevalence of mental health conditions amongst postdoctoral researchers, building on approaches used in recent studies of postgraduate students.
  • Map mental health policies and procedures at UK Higher Education Institutions to improve understanding of mental health policies and procedures in UK research institutions.
  • Conduct more and higher-quality evaluations of mental health interventions and publish their results to identify what works in this area. In particular, further follow-up could be done to evaluate the interventions introduced through the wellbeing and engagement initiative established by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and subsequently maintained as a network by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association.
  • Investigate and develop existing standards, such as the Health and Safety Executive management standards, as a framework for workplace mental health management in research environments to identify mechanisms at play in those settings.

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Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Methods

  • Chapter Three

    How are 'mental health' and 'wellbeing' understood in research environments?

  • Chapter Four

    What is currently known about researchers' mental health and wellbeing compared to other populations?

  • Chapter Five

    What interventions are used to support researchers, and what evidence is there of their effectiveness?

  • Chapter Six

    Conclusions and future directions

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was prepared for the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust and conducted by RAND Europe.

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