Why the mental ill health of academic researchers remains a hidden problem
Susan Guthrie, research leader, and Catie Lichten, analyst, both at the RAND Europe research institute
Students are not the only people at universities who suffer from mental ill health. Academic staff at higher education institutions require support, too. In fact, the recent suicide of a professor in the US has sparked renewed discussions about supporting the mental health needs of academics.
As concerns grow about the mental health challenges faced by academic staff, several organisations involved in supporting academic research have become interested in better understanding the situation, and in how best to support researchers. Reviewing the evidence in this area for the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust, we found that despite a
lack of robust data, there were strong grounds for concern.
The available evidence suggests that the well-being of academics is worse than that of individuals in other types of work. Levels of burnout among university staff are comparable to those of “highrisk” groups such as healthcare workers.
But identifying the problems and deciding how to address them remains a significant challenge for the higher education sector, especially as the mental health needs of higher education staff are still not properly understood.
Academics are subject to a number of pressures, including the pressure to publish and to win grants in highly competitive environments; job insecurity; the conflict between work and family life; and the pressure to balance teaching, research and administrative responsibilities.
Large surveys have suggested that UK higher education staff report worse well-being in areas of work demands, managerial support and clarity about roles. The only area where they reported higher well-being was job control, but the results were still mixed. Postgraduate students face similar challenges: about 40 per cent report symptoms of depression, emotional or stress-related problems, or high levels of stress.
One challenge when looking to address the problems of poor mental health and well-being in higher education is the fact that staff are not disclosing conditions. UK national statistics indicate that only 6.2 per cent of university staff disclosed a mental health condition to their employer, but they have been found to be among the occupational groups with the highest levels of common mental disorders, with a prevalence of about 37 per cent. This is higher than the English average in the recent Health Survey for England, showing that 26 per cent of all adults have been diagnosed with at least one mental illness.
At the same time, evidence of the effectiveness of mental health interventions in higher education is limited. Most interventions aim to support researchers to deal with workplace stress, but they might not effectively address the root causes of that stress or the wider mental health problems relating to life outside work.
It is clear that more work is needed to understand both the mental health needs of researchers and how they can be addressed. Mapping the mental health policies and procedures at UK higher education institutions is one way to better understand what is currently in place. At the same time, conducting more high-quality evaluations of mental health interventions can help to identify what actually works.
Finally, there could be more research studying the prevalence of mental health conditions among early career researchers who may face greater challenges, such as job insecurity.
More work is needed to pinpoint the reasons behind these mental health problems and to determine how they can be addressed. Otherwise mental health will continue to be the hidden problem affecting a significant proportion of those in the higher education sector.