Is research bad for your health? And what can we do to mitigate it?
Wellbeing has sprung to the forefront of our minds following a stressful three years, and never more so than for PhD students, recent doctoral graduates, and early career researchers. It’s always been a rollercoaster ride, navigating the peak of ‘mount stupid’ (Dunning-Kruger effect), at that first flush of progress, followed by the crash into the “valley of despair” when the enormity of what you are trying to do hits home. And post-graduation, the emotional rollercoaster of funding continues.
But it’s not just wellbeing, it’s depression and anxiety that are seen as being the norm for UK PhD students, causing concern of a mental health crisis. And in engineering? It seems that things may be worse.
At Katalytik, we’re excited to be working with Warwick Manufacturing Group at the University of Warwick, researching, and piloting, an approach for understanding and addressing the wellbeing of early career researchers.
Wellbeing and doctoral researchers
PhD students in the United Kingdom are more likely than other educated members of the general public to report symptoms of depression or anxiety. A pre-pandemic study, funded by the Office for Students, at the University of Sussex undertook a literature review and survey of 6000 PhD students. The study found doctoral researchers reporting:
- Greater levels of stress compared to the general population
- Systemic factors of pressure, competition, and poor student-supervisor relationships
- Long hours leading to a lack of work-life balance and associated poor self-care
- A lack of controlled research
- Pressure to publish
An analysis of the meta data showed 24% of all PhD students had “clinically significant signs of depression” and 17% of over 15,600 PhD students were estimated to have anxiety.
And all this, before the pandemic.
Added to this is another finding from the study is that students aren’t seeking help. A fear of not wanting to seem weak, or incapable, to their supervisors, means PhD students keep their challenges to themselves. Reinforced by the observations of Jo-Anne Tait at Robert Gordon University.
The COVID factor
We’re all different. Consider the researcher who has spent two thirds of their PhD banned from the lab and isolated from colleagues. Some will shrug their shoulders, enjoy the solace, and soldier on. While for others, it’s the worst possible scenario. Isolation, disconnect, and silence.
The very future of academia may be at risk. It’s no surprise then that universities are focused on helping their future stars to regain their vibrancy and self-esteem. Who, or what, is to blame?
Publish or perish is a major factor
Poor mental health of PhD students isn’t a recent phenomenon. Nature undertook a survey, “PhDs: the tortuous truth” and published it on the 13th of November 2019, dodging the ‘pressure to publish in prestigious journals’ as being a major contributor to stress, according to Federico Germani.
Germani constructed a new survey with Culturico to demonstrate the impact of the pressure of the publish or perish [in a high impact journal} on stress as the highest contributing factor (see below).
Factors contributing to stress in academia. Infographics @EmelineBarrea (emelinebarrea.com)
A pilot positive psychology, strengths-based intervention
Katalytik’s workshop ‘Making the most – managing your supervisor’ was developed with the UCL engineering doctoral training centre, founded on the early career researcher leadership programme. This has now been updated with strengths-based material from Gallup’s Wellbeing at Work research findings.
The workshop is designed to build self-knowledge and self-worth in early career researchers, growing their inner confidence. By tapping into people’s innate drive we are able to help individuals work out how to energize themselves and grow their capability to notice when they are feeling drained and what they are doing at that time.
“What energizes me, won’t necessarily energize you, hence self-reflection plays an important part in the three day workshop.”
Says Jan Peters, Katalytik CEO and Gallup Certified Strengths Coach.
Importantly the strengths language enables researchers to have conversations with their colleagues, and importantly, supervisor, about what they need to be their best. For example people who have a strength that Gallup labels as Intellection, are characterized by their intellectual activity. They are introspective and appreciate intellectual discussions. They love internal processing and think deeply. They are not good at giving answers to quick fire questions. Putting them in a situation that demands this, causes stress and anxiety. Similarly, people who have a strength named Activator can make things happen by turning thoughts into action. They want to do things now, rather than simply talk about them. Things can get interesting ( as in cause friction or simply a lack of connectivity) when a student has one and the supervisor another.
A Positive Start
The potential for a strengths-based approach to reducing researcher stress is being piloted with WMG, in the Positive Start programme and may help to address three concerning areas of stress:
- Presenting in front of an audience: doing this your way
- Improving a supervisor’s management skills and style: two way appreciation of what each brings and needs to be their best
- Improving the atmosphere of a research group: by focusing on what is right with each other, not what is wrong and improving self-awareness and awareness of others
This pilot is exploring a prevention and intervention strategy rather than a cure. And is providing participants with improved communication and collaboration capabilities and a foundation as a future leader. Opening up a bright future for some of the country’s brightest sparks. Submitted as a concept paper at the SEFI conference 2021, the team were awarded a best concept paper award. The paper is available to download in the Katalytik library, title: Positive Start.
If you’re interested in finding out more about using CliftonStrengths to boost your team, your own, or your research groups energy levels ready to face 2023, then book a call.