Understanding Mental Health in the Research Environment
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Burnout and stress can be a challenge for university research staff and postgraduates. An exploration of the strengths and limitations of the existing evidence base on mental health in the research environment, conducted for the Royal Society and Wellcome Trust, found that more work is needed to understand both the needs of researchers and how they can be addressed.
Mental health issues affect many people over the course of their life. The Health Survey for England 2014 showed that 26 per cent of all adults reported having ever been diagnosed with at least one mental illness and a further 18 per cent of adults reported having experienced a mental illness without a formal diagnosis.
Evidence indicates that a considerable proportion of university students have experienced mental health problems. However, although there is reason to expect that university researchers may face similar challenges, there has been less work focusing on this specific group. There also appears to be little published work on the mental health needs of researchers working outside of universities.
In the research environment, as in other workplaces, a range of factors can impact individuals’ mental health. The pressure to publish and win grants in highly competitive environments; job insecurity; workplace bullying and harassment; and work/family conflict can all have an effect. Some of these factors arise in various work environments, while others may be more specific to research. To ensure researchers receive adequate support so that mental health issues can be addressed and prevented, it is important that the mental health needs of individuals in the research environment be understood.
As a first step towards addressing the issue, RAND Europe was commissioned by the Royal Society and Wellcome Trust to assess what is known about mental health in the research environment, and explore the strengths and limitations of the existing evidence base.
The project team conducted a review of existing literature, focusing on the following research questions:
- What are the meanings of the terms ‘mental health’ and ‘wellbeing’ in the context of research environments?
- What is currently known about researchers’ mental health and wellbeing?
- What interventions are being used to support the mental health of researchers?
- What are the strengths and limitations of the evidence base in this area?
- Higher education staff report worse wellbeing than those in other types of employment – This was a common finding from a number of large-scale surveys, with UK higher education staff wellbeing being worse in the areas of work demands, change management, managerial support and clarity about their role. The only area where higher education staff reported higher wellbeing was in job control, but the results were still mixed.
- The majority of university staff find their jobs stressful – Levels of work-related stress appear to be higher among university staff than in general working populations and are comparable to ‘high-risk’ groups, such as healthcare workers.
- PhD students face similar challenges to other researchers and higher education staff – The main factors associated with the development of depression and other common mental health problems in PhD students are high levels of work demands and work-life conflict, low job control, poor support from the supervisor and exclusion from decision making.
- Academics appear to not be disclosing their mental health conditions – UK national statistics indicate that only 6.2 per cent of university staff disclosed a mental health condition to their employer, but academics have been found to be among the occupational groups with the highest levels of common mental disorders with a prevalence of around 37 per cent. An estimated one in six UK working-age adults experience symptoms of mental ill health at any given time.
- Job security was a key issue – Job insecurity (real and perceived) appears to be an important issue for those working in the research environment, particularly for early-career researchers who are often employed on successive short-term contracts.
- Gender was the key personal factor that emerged as a determinant for mental health – Women report more exposure to stress than men and also report greater challenges around work-life balance.
- Spending more time on research is associated with reduced stress – Research-only staff reported lower levels of work-life conflict and had better wellbeing than other higher education institution (HEI) staff, although other characteristics, such as seniority, could play confounding roles.
- Poor wellbeing can impact the productivity of researchers – Job stress and poor workplace wellbeing can contribute to reduced productivity for researchers – both through absenteeism, where researchers missing work, but more importantly, through presenteeism, where researchers attend work and are less productive. They can also lead to lower levels of commitment to their research and to institutions, which can be seen in high-levels of turnover and through negative attitudes in the workplace.
- Impact of stress on job satisfaction of researchers is unclear – Researchers often gain job satisfaction from intrinsic factors, such as the intellectual stimulation of their work, so the impact of stress is unclear. Several studies note that high levels of job-related stress can coexist with high levels of job satisfaction.
- Evidence on the effectiveness of mental health interventions is limited – The majority of interventions aim to support researchers to deal with workplace stress, but they may not be effective in addressing the root causes of that stress or wider mental health problems relating to life outside work.
More work is needed to understand both the mental health needs of researchers and how they can be addressed. Based on the evidence gaps identified and the information that is available, the following avenues for further research on this topic were suggested:
- 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.
- 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.