“Thank God it’s Friday.” That is what I told my family after a long and stressful week, but it took me only a few minutes to realize that I had promised an editor that I would send in my already-late review by Friday.
After opening my computer, I realized that the next week would be even more stressful, with a full calendar that included committee meetings for selecting faculty members and doctoral-programme candidates, two grant reports and presentations, teaching, a presentation to the faculty members at my institute, a full day of meetings with my team members and a two-day trip to Oslo to meet collaborators and attend a kick-off event for a new research consortium — all of which would require lots of time for preparation.
Realizing that it would be impossible to plan for and complete all these tasks during the week, I made a list to assess which tasks I could cancel or postpone. Cancelling my participation in the committees or the institute meeting would disappoint my colleagues and affect my credibility. Failing to submit grant reports and to present our progress to funders carried its own risk. No matter how exhausted, stressed or burnt-out I feel, cancelling my teaching has never been an option. So I informed my wife and children that I would not be able to join them for our weekend activities; normally, we’d go to town together for lunch and perhaps watch a movie, or just spend time with each other.
I was in my office for the entire weekend, working on my presentations and reviewing more than 70 faculty-member and PhD-programme applications. I sent my nominations after midnight on Sunday, wondering whether I was the only one working that late. But I got a response within a few minutes from a colleague, reminding me that I had forgotten to review two applicants.
Between the cracks
I was able to finish everything that had a Monday deadline, but many tasks remained unchecked. To catch up, I cancelled my group meetings, closed the door to my office and asked not to be disturbed for two days. Then, on Tuesday evening, I travelled with two members of my research group to Oslo. We spent all Wednesday attending presentations by the 15 members of the consortium and planning joint activities. I used our only break to catch up on and respond to important e-mails, before leaving the hotel for dinner with colleagues.
In the end, I met all my deadlines. At first, I was relieved and happy that I seemed to have juggled all of these tasks and without dropping a ball. However, I soon realized that some had indeed fallen — but silently. I had not spent any time with my family. There were at least three occasions on which I forgot to take my medication on time, and I got only five or six hours of sleep each night. I did not get a chance to meet with most of my group members for the entire week, or manage to give my students the feedback I usually give them before their presentations. Throughout this period, no matter how hard I tried to isolate myself to avoid transferring the pressure and stress to others, my anxiety was clearly in the air — and in the sounds of my footsteps when I walked briskly to my office or my computer at home.
What started as a struggle to manage my time and a busy agenda ended up as an exhausting and emotional week, capped off with feelings of guilt and dissatisfaction about not being able to achieve work–life balance or complete tasks at the quality level I would’ve liked. Although such an avalanche of responsibilities does not happen every week, it is still a common occurrence in the lives of many faculty members.
Lack of clarity
Scientists are passionate about our work, and tend to overvalue the satisfaction we get from aspects of our jobs: publishing our results, being recognized by our peers and hitting targets during our evaluations. It is not surprising that many of us work long hours and over weekends or holidays. We often forget or underestimate the toll that overworking ourselves, being constantly busy and ignoring our mental health takes on our students, team members, families and personal relationships. The lack of clarity about what is expected from faculty members and the requirements for promotion and career advancement further exacerbate the situation. This often provokes stress and anxiety, and leads to the unrealistic pursuit of excellence and validation at high costs to faculty members, students, research and universities.
Students and young researchers should obviously be the centre of attention at universities. But it seems less apparent to me that university leaders understand that students’ success, mental health and well-being are strongly dependent on those of their teachers, advisers and mentors.
These leaders do not recognize that faculty members’ busy and stressful lives impede their ability to uphold the missions of their universities, or even acknowledge that there is a mental-health crisis among this group. This is reflected in the scarcity of data on the prevalence of stress, anxiety and mental-health problems among professors. Universities can often be seen as more interested in the research findings and success stories of their faculty members than in their personal stories or mental health. I have been a professor for the past 15 years, and this topic has never been discussed at scientific conferences, or at faculty meetings or retreats. It is very rare for universities to conduct surveys to assess faculty satisfaction, mental health and well-being. It is almost as if dealing with stress and anxiety, and your ability to withstand mental-health challenges on your own, are not only part of the position, but also key criteria for whether you are fit for a job in academia.
When it comes to faculty burnout and mental wellness, most universities have chosen to delegate these issues to their human-resources departments, which are increasingly offering workshops and online resources to help faculty members to improve their skills in managing their projects, teams, stress and other issues. This is an important first step, but it is not a substitute for direct engagement and open, community-wide discussions on work-related stress and mental-health.
University leaders at all levels should pause and think about the costs of continuing business as usual and the impact of their policies, actions and leadership style on their employees. When assigning new tasks and responsibilities, leaders should take the time to talk to their staff, and consider not only their current priorities, responsibilities and commitments, but also their personal circumstances and well-being. Such conversations will go a long way towards reducing stress on faculty members, and will send a signal that their success and health are equally valued.
I’m pleased to note that the status quo does seem to be changing, both at my university and further afield. Senior leaders at my institution are responding positively and are keen to start the conversation about mental health and well-being, and this seems to me to be a reflection of a larger trend in academia to acknowledge the issues that many of us face. I hope this continues and, most importantly, I hope it will translate into changes in policies, practices and attitudes that promote a healthy culture and supportive working environment in which we can all learn, educate, innovate and thrive without compromising our well-being.
Ultimately, it is our responsibility as faculty members to be proactive in our pursuit of work–life balance, to seek assistance when needed and to support each other. We should work together to advocate change, starting with calling for a systematic effort to understand how the current culture, value systems and working environment are contributing to stress and the mental-health crisis in academia.
The failure to acknowledge the interconnected and interdependent relationship between students, faculty members, staff and leaders at a university undermines not only all efforts to lift the stigma and tackle the academic mental-health crisis, but also the missions of our universities.