Third of Scholars Facing Mental Health Problems Due to Stress and Paperwork

Researchers and university teachers are exposed to levels of stress on par with the highest-risk professions. Several studies have concluded that over one third of academics face the threat of developing a mental disorder. Why? Scholars are troubled by enormous work demands, paperwork, and poor workplace relationships.

Academics are exposed to levels of occupational stress comparable to the pressures experienced by healthcare professionals, teachers, and social workers. Moreover, as several international studies have reported, university employees are also troubled by even higher work demands and less support from their superiors. Such is the state of affairs described in an analysis of existing data conducted by RAND, a British research organization that examines the issue within the European context.

Additionally, in comparison with people in other occupations, researchers and postgraduate students are more at risk of developing psychiatric disorders.

“Higher education staff have reported worse well-being than staff in other types of employment (including education, and health and social work) in five out of six assessed areas. There is also evidence from a number of survey-based studies using the GHQ-12 questionnaire, a well- validated screening instrument to identify psychological distress. Across three studies, 32–42 per cent of university staff were found at risk of having or developing a mental health problem,” explains Susan Guthrie, principal author of the RAND report.

The key factors influencing stress in universities and research institutions involve mainly high work demands, administrative burdens, and poor workplace relationships. Additional studies cited in the report indicate that excessive stress is related to a lack of time for actual research – and that working overtime correlates with symptoms of depression.

Czech science: less pressure on performance, but excessive paperwork

Jiří Šponer, a physical chemist and biochemist employed at the Institute of Biophysics of the Czech Academy of Sciences and CEITEC – Masaryk University, describes how such pressure manifests in practice: “For myself, the primary stress factor is the exponentially growing red tape pandemic, increasingly absurd and intolerable, which is turning scientists into – pardon my language – a bunch of circus monkeys. Let me be clear: I still do enjoy solving scientific problems – provided I actually get that far. But I sink most of my time into frustrating chores and I’m working at the very limits of my capacity. If I worked forty hours a week, I’d hardly have any time for actual research. Bureaucratic/administrative burdens of all kinds hijack half of my working capacity and seriously disrupt my research.”

Similar conclusions are reported in a study on burnout syndrome conducted on Czech scholars by Kateřina Zábrodská, a member of the Czech Academy of Sciences. For people in Czech academia, the number one threat by far is the conflict between their work-related duties and their personal lives, with excessive work demands as runner-up.

In general terms, however, there is a difference between the academic environment in the Czech Republic and in Western Europe: having fewer ties to the commercial sector, Czech researchers are able to work more freely. And despite substantial differences in emphasis on performance across particular institutions, such pressure is usually not as strong as in the West, explains Zábrodská.

In contrast, Czech academia is more demanding with respect to paperwork. “Occasionally, I envy people who simply end their shift at work and are free to go home with a clear mind,” says Zuzana Holubcová, an embryologist employed at Masaryk University. “You can’t squeeze science into fixed working hours. What stresses me are the enormous demands on performance and the constant comparisons of research output quality. Moreover, it’s been a long time since being an expert in your own field was enough, nowadays you also have to be a bit of a manager, lawyer, zootechnician, statistician, graphic artist, programmer, writer, teacher, promoter… Completing tables suffocates creativity,” says Holubcová. 

„You’re here to do science”

Having conducted her own research on artificial fertilization in the labs of Cambridge University, Holubcová is in a good position to make comparisons between Czech and English-speaking academia.

“In Cambridge, the work was extremely stressful: just keeping up with a research group like that is similar to competitive sports,” she says. “But in contrast with Masaryk University in Brno, I didn’t have to worry about administrative and managerial issues. I was told I was there just to do science, everything else was taken care of. The situation here is gradually improving, too, but I feel at times as if I were paddling against the current, which understandably leads to regular bouts of frustration.”

She would welcome, for instance, more flexibility in managing her grant funds. “I find it very hard to make a two-year prediction about what I’m going to need for my research. So I’ve ended up in a situation when I have money for research, but I can’t use it according to the current needs of the project. To give you an example, buying a software license for analysing data put me through bureaucratic hell, because it didn’t fit into any of the pre-defined expenditure categories. Sometimes I get the feeling we’re automatically suspected of wanting to siphon off grant money.” 

The PhD limbo

Another significant academic stressor – insecurity about where their career is actually headed – is a particular concern for PhD students. According to a recent Belgian study, no less than 32 percent of them were given a high-risk score, more than double that of other young and successful professionals. Nearly one third of PhD students therefore self-report amounts of stress regarded by medical studies as symptomatic of a psychiatric disorder.

What’s worrying doctoral students? Insufficient or poor tutoring on the part of their supervisors and uncertainty about the career endpoint of their studies.

“In a nutshell, some PhD students stop seeing any sense to their work: they don’t know why they should finish their degree, they lack decent tutoring, they lose their motivation,” confirms Miloš Havlík of the counselling centre at the Czech Technical University. Depressive disorders, along with academic procrastination and IAD (pathological internet use, e.g. addiction to videogames and social media – editor’s note) rank among the most common problems that students come to discuss with him. 

Havlík sums up his experience with Czech students: “One of the triggers for depression can be academic procrastination, which, as data from the US tells us, affects 75 to 90 per cent of students. I’m inclined to see the lower figure as more accurate – it’s a number that also applies to the situation here, I think. That being said, to develop a psychiatric disorder a person also has to have some predispositions and, moreover, I’m rarely the first mental health professional they’ve consulted, as many have a history of mental health problems going back to their secondary school years.” 

The chicken and egg of depression

Havlík’s observation that mental disorders cannot be blamed on excessive external demands alone, but also on the qualities of a particular individual, is key to understanding all the above-quoted studies. 

They draw their data from horizontal surveys that suggest academics might be suffering greater levels of stress, as well as depressive and anxiety disorders, than is common in the general population. The data does not imply, however, that responsibility for the scholars’ troubles can be attributed solely to the academic environment.

Just like a majority of psychiatric disorders, depression rarely has a single cause: instead, it is produced by the interplay of numerous contributing factors. Genetic predispositions combine with our ancestry, which influences our biological constitution, and with the effects of pre-natal development, childhood, and one’s entire personal history – and the resulting character traits in turn interact with a variety of external factors, ranging from the quality of meals at the uni cafeteria to the complexities of grant applications.

In other words, if academics are more depressed than average, it might be caused by those external factors – but also by the fact that academic institutions possibly function as kinds of retention centres that accumulate people inherently prone to depression and anxiety.

First of all, anxiety and depression are probably related to intelligence – and it may be assumed that scientists are endowed with an above-average IQ. Some studies have indeed confirmed a positive correlation between high intelligence and proneness to anxiety and/or depression.

In contrast, other studies correlate such disorders with low intelligence. Yet such conclusions are not mutually contradictory. While high intelligence is mainly contingent on genes which can simultaneously cause greater susceptibility to stress or excessive thinking, lower intelligence is relatively more often determined by some additional factor – such as an illness, injury or inadequate social background – which strips an individual not only of IQ points but also of the ability to cope with stress and the demands of the surrounding world. It is perhaps likely that mental health problems are prompted by both highly superior and significantly inferior intellects.

Moreover, the point in question is not necessarily intelligence alone, but also the way people lead their lives. Academic careers are rewarding in terms of intellectual gratification and social status, rather than material gains – and as such attract a particular sort of people. The higher prevalence of depression and anxiety among academics could thus be explained by the theory of positive disintegration proposed by the Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski. According to Dabrowski, anxiety and depression might be a corollary of personal development: he perceives a certain kind of hypersensitivity and the concomitant discomfort as a force that allows one to grow. 

Data from the US indicate that in comparison with corresponding income groups, higher incidence of depression can be observed not only in academics but also in teachers and healthcare workers. Similarly to academic research, the rewards in these occupations feature a substantial non-material component: the awareness that an individual can make a far more obvious contribution to the society than people in most other fields. People who gravitate towards such professions are therefore likely to diverge from the statistical average. They can be more empathetic and alert to the needs of the society, for instance – and it is precisely such a mindset that is frequent in people treated for depression.

Why we persevere in a stressful environment

People prone to depression and anxiety are arguably more likely to enter the world of academia – and it may well be that they are also less likely to leave it.

In his autobiographical account, The Psychopath Inside, world-renowned neuroscientist James Fallon reveals a host of eccentricities and psychiatric ailments that have accompanied him throughout his life, and a reader making a living in the commercial sector may well wonder how long Fallon would last in a regular job before getting the sack. The academic environment is more permissive with respect to the employees’ personal traits: researchers can get along without punch clocks and security checks; nobody forces them to puff into a breathalyser on coming to work, or to move from a private office into a noisy open-plan one – all of which may contribute to the persistence of stress-prone people who might likely leave other types of job.

The challenges of entering the world of academia is another motivation for academics to stick around, even if the environment erodes their well-being. All of us are at fault for irrationally exaggerating the value of things, people, or indeed fields of activity that require us to make sacrifices. Behavioural economy calls this phenomenon the effect of sunk costs: if we have made a foolish investment into something, we tend to continue investing even more foolishly, so that we do not have to admit to ourselves that we originally acted on a poor decision.

By the same token, rather than admitting fault, we produce rationalisations to justify poor decisions we made earlier.

Before researchers can start working autonomously, they must first spend over twenty years studying – and, after all those years, the invested time and energy are a motivation to keep jumping a new set of hurdles, rather than admitting they may have squandered a part of their energy and society’s resources with little to show for it in terms of career.

Our mental failings may therefore contribute to holding onto a job that is toxic, and the phenomenon may be even more pronounced in academia, naturally leading to dissatisfaction and occupational stress that in turn feeds into depression in susceptible individuals – and into other problems in other, differently predisposed people.

In reality, the various influences on the part of a given person and their working environment combine – and once they exceed the threshold of stress and discomfort that a particular individual can bear without substantial difficulty, they can precipitate depression.

The connection between work and depression in people affiliated with academia is a phenomenon observed by another respondent, a psychologist employed in one of the larger Czech hospitals, who, however, decided to remain anonymous so as not to violate her patients’ privacy. She sees her patients’ ambitions with respect to their own parents, and their parents’ successful (often academic) careers as an additional risk factor in pursuing an academic life. Her patients often fail to surpass their parents’ accomplishments – perhaps an unattainable goal, given the conditions prevailing in present-day research. As our anonymous respondent points out, using examples from her own practice, people in such a predicament may sacrifice most of their time to work without ever achieving their father’s or mother’s stature, perhaps owing to the field having become more competitive – and this may result in feeling they have wasted their lives.

Griping and complaining as popular pastimes

When asked “Have you ever experienced uncomfortable stress at work?”, 49 out of 50 scientists respond in the affirmative. The same answer, however, will be given by the vast majority of non-academics, too. Every job comes with certain demands, and meeting these demands exposes one to stress, regardless of whether one is a researcher, manager or farmer. Stress is an organism’s response to discrepancies between an ideal and reality – and it is so inherent in work because there would be no work left for us if everything was ideal and complete. The fact that researchers gave their answers while at work considerably distorts the results of such surveys, as it is in connection with work that we tend to experience stress more intensely.

The most frequently employed tool, which yielded the shocking fact that one third to one half of academics are threatened by mental disorders, is the GHQ-12 questionnaire, consisting of twelve items such as “Have you recently lost much sleep over worry?” and “Have you recently been thinking of yourself as a worthless person?”.

However, while analysing the responses obtained in employee research, a group of British scientists discovered a fundamental inconsistency with data collected in other surveys: the answers of people interviewed within the context of their professional lives indicate as much as double the prevalence of common mental disorders compared to corresponding population studies. Yet the figure should actually be lower, since a considerable portion of the most medically and socio-economically vulnerable people do not have any permanent employment.

The reason is simple: when responding to questions about work, people tend to complain and overstate their troubles. Moreover, what further exacerbates the distortion of surveys conducted among academics is the low return rate of questionnaires, which gives even greater prominence to those who use questionnaires to vent their frustrations.

The prevalence of psychiatric disorders can be estimated without such distortion by examining suicide rates. Such estimates are also flawed, however, since the circumstances of socio-economically well-situated academics can be expected to provide a number of factors that protect them from suicide even in cases of mental illness, e.g. better social support and greater availability of healthcare. Nonetheless, data from the US indicate that the suicide rate among researchers is lower than in the general population.

In attempting to explain the ostensible discrepancy between high levels of self-reported depression and a relatively low suicide rate, we can look for answers much closer to home: in pre-revolutionary Hungary. A comparison between the prevalence of depression and suicide rates across various Hungarian regions at the turn of the 1980s revealed that a higher prevalence of diagnosed depression correlated with fewer suicides, as patients sought treatment instead of taking their own lives. What may therefore underlie the higher incidence of depressive symptoms in academics is the fact that they possess a keener awareness of their mental problems and of the contributing stressors.

Stress costs money

The difficulties associated with the academic environment are doubtlessly no less stressful just because currently available data fail to provide an accurate and comprehensive description. Meanwhile, it is not just the scholars themselves who bear the brunt of the consequences, but society at large.

In statistical terms, workplace stress and discomfort increase the frequency of health-related work absences and decrease employee productivity and loyalty. According to British estimations, academic stress swallows up approximately 5 percent of university research budgets. Additional indirect costs are incurred by withdrawals of ill-paid and poorly tutored dissertation research projects.

Research reports often come up with recommendations for additional counselling centres and recovery programs for scientists. However, the call for such amenities is not universal and, moreover, they would be merely a superficial fix, a band-aid alleviating symptoms instead of solving the underlying problems. Yet the systemic solutions are already well-known.

The state would do well to substantially increase the funding of high-quality scientific institutions to release research and researchers from dependence on grants. In contrast to temporary grant-based employment, permanent tenures would allow scholars to enjoy the security provided to employees in other sectors – and perhaps render them eligible for a mortgage, too.

This would benefit not just individuals, but also the research itself, which would not have to be planned in grant application cycles, as explained in an interview with Eva Zažímalová, President of the Czech Academy of Sciences. Zažímalová also points out the problem of reconciling one’s personal and professional life, particularly with respect to young female researchers: if parents are supposed to work at universities, the institutions need to provide facilities for their children. After all, it is young academics and women whom the already mentioned Czech survey indicated as a more vulnerable group.

At the same time, we should decide what we want from our successful scientists: should they be giving regular lectures to students (who can find the world’s leading authorities on YouTube, anyway – assuming they are interested in lectures at all), reading term papers, or completing applications? Or should they be carrying out research that is only occasionally interspersed with dashes of managerial decision-making and sporadic teaching? Paperwork and educational duties can be left to administrative staff and more junior colleagues.

Translated by Petr K. Ondráček