Stress, Underperformance and Mental Health: Why Academia Needs a New Paradigm

Since last week the Twittersphere has been full of talk about the ‘culture of acceptance’ of mental health issues in academia, in response to this article in the Guardian. I have been talking to academics about these issues and their experiences for the past couple of years – most specifically with regard to stress, and how it affects their lives – and what strikes me most is not only how normalised being overly stressed is, but how non-existent a constructive dialogue on stress, mental health, and wellbeing. The fear of ‘showing weakness’ is deeply engrained, and so people choose to express nothing at all. Even academics who are sympathetic to the cause, such as those who contact me and ask me to give a talk, remain mostly silent.

Clearly, something has to change.

Academia needs a new paradigm to think and talk about productivity, stress and (mental) health.

Let’s start with two basic ideas:

1. In academia stress is an institutional characteristic, and should not be taken as an indication of personal failure.

Academia is an inherently stressful work environment. This is true not primarily for reasons of workload as is often suggested (especially in the early years. It gets worse as your academic career progresses), but because of the nature of the job, and the way the system is set up. Most importantly, there is a structural imbalance between effort exerted and rewards received: the rewards for academic work are always delayed, in the sense that hard work put in may only pay off in terms of public acknowledgement (praise, publications) weeks, months or years after sitting at your computer crunching those data or composing that first draft of a paper. In between lies a tough road of criticism, failure, and – if you’re unlucky enough to not know these things come with the territory, and still unsure whether recognition will occur ever, at all – self-doubt. Couple that with competitive pressures and an increasing emphasis on ‘measurable results’, and stress is a given. To repeat: It is not workload that makes you stressed – it is a lack of balance between immediate effort and reward. If rewards are in place people can do the most amazing things. If they are lacking, people crumble. ‘Feeling valued’ may be the most important reward of all. It’s a psychological foundation of wellbeing which is often completely overlooked in academia today.

2. Stress is the single most detrimental factor when it comes to academic performance. It should be dealt with as such, and not as some sort of masochistic test of personal toughness.

There is a big difference between short-term stress, and long-term stress. Short-term stress helps you focus, meet that deadline, write that paper, and do it in a fraction of the time you would normally spend accomplishing the same. It can be exciting and exhilarating. Unfortunately, the same hormones that drive short-term performance in stressful circumstances harm the brain and lower academic performance if their levels remain elevated. This is no joke. The impact is real and harmful. At some point you may no longer function like you did previously, and think it is ‘just you’. It’s not. It’s the result of chronic stress. An understanding of how stress and academic performance are linked is needed, as are strategies to break this vicious cycle. Pushing harder is the absolute stupidest thing you can do in such a situation. Instead, you need to break the stress cycle, to allow your brain to recover and refresh. In the Guardian article a supervisor was quoted as having said that it “was normal to work to the point of illness during the early stages of an academic career.” (Actually, it wasn’t in the Guardian article – it was elsewhere. Argh. Can’t find the piece now. Please forgive the missing reference). That equals saying it’s OK to work to the point of brain injury. Let’s not do that. There must be a clear demarcation between short-term goals that may require a challenging all-consuming sprint, and long-term goals that require a strategy of effort and recovery. That does not mean your work output can’t be high. But you’ve got to work smart, not push to the point of destruction.

If even only these two basic ideas would be better known and understood in academia, pointless suffering would be reduced, and publication records would increase in the process. The machismo of ‘working till you drop’ and ‘being tough’ is old-school and misguided. It needs to be replaced with a paradigm of ‘working smart’ and ‘being in touch’. ‘Working smart’ meaning: working with your physiology, not against it. ‘Being in touch’ meaning: being more aware of how ‘in shape’ we are in terms of mental clarity, tenacity and general productivity, and improving our form by working strategically. It also means being more connected with our colleagues, and fostering a supportive environment. Negligence, and the feeling of not mattering – absolutely endemic in the world of doing a PhD, in particular – are poisonous substances personally and professionally. Academia needs a culture that is supportive of academic performance. Competition alone is not enough. Academic competition and academic kindness are needed to be resilient and perform your best.