Too stressed for success: The academic epidemic

A woman suffering burnout

Fatigue and burnout are frequently reported among academic researchers. Photo credit: Ephraim Mayrena via Unsplash.

This Opinion piece is part of a series on mental health among scientific researchers. Read our introduction to the series here.

Burnout and elevated stress levels are an inherent issue in academia. This is promoted by deeply engrained values of research institutions that reward excellence based on the number and impact of a researcher’s publications. This issue persists throughout all stages of an academic career, including the achievement of a full professorship, which is awarded depending on one’s renown in a given field. Despite this, early-career researchers (ECRs) are disproportionately impacted by “publish or perish” culture.

Following a long-standing tradition in academia, these young researchers are expected to work longer hours, outcompete their peers, and sacrifice the idea of a healthy work-life balance to kick-start their careers. The mindset that being pushed to one’s limits is a reasonable expectation at early academic career stages is promoted by advice on increasing chances at professional success, including works like Becoming a Successful Early Career Researcher.  

The harmful impacts of the narrow perspectives of institutions on scientific excellence are obvious. In a 2022 study on German PhD students, 51% attributed their mental health problems at least in part to their PhD training​. Despite the international prevalence of such mental health struggles in ECRs, work by institutions and national frameworks to combat the issue remains scarce and insufficient for the magnitude of the problem.  

Escalation of many inherent issues in academia occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic: closing of laboratories caused widespread isolation, delays in research increased the pressure to attain funding, and enlarged teaching loads of many ECRs fuelled burnout. Digital teaching, hiring freezes, and lay-offs conspired to multiply the daily hours of preparatory work to meet teaching commitments, while many academics had to simultaneously juggle childcare after school closures and share office spaces in family homes. The aftershocks of the pandemic have not yet disappeared completely, and many academic researchers are still suffering the consequences.

It is unsurprising that 70% of US university faculty respondents reported feeling stressed in an October 2020 survey, “The Chronicle of Higher Education”. This was double the proportion the year before, where 32% of respondents reported feeling stressed. Fatigue—one of the most common symptoms associated with burnout syndrome—was reported by over two-thirds of faculty members. Over half of the respondents of this survey stated that they were seriously contemplating a career change, so it seems the necessity for academic institutions to implement meaningful change is more dire than ever before to avoid the loss of valuable research talent to other career paths.  

‘Will ECRs burnout and perish before they can publish?’ 

Fien et al. (2022)

The UK Research Excellence Framework (UK REF) has encouraged departments to specifically support ECRs with aid for finding funding and lowered teaching demands as a means of stress relief. The lack of investigations by the UK REF to regulate the implementation of real alterations by institutions leads to a lack of authentic change​. This mirrors performative self-care that promotes phrases such as “look after yourself” and “keep pushing through”, which implement no real change.

Systematic modifications are required to decrease the risk of burnout in ECRs. Those who don’t exhaust themselves mentally and physically during the early years of their academic life can stunt their career progression. Re-evaluation of expectations by more empathic academic leadership committees are required, including by university administration officials making acceptance decisions for PhD and postdoctoral positions.

The World Health Organisation’s 2022 conceptual framework for self-care interventions shows that an enabling workplace environment and accountability are crucial to supporting accessibility to mental health resources. Schemes that increase visibility of resources and platforms that mitigate stress in ECRs are valuable, whether in the form of peer-support groups, mentorship programs, or opportunities for further funding and training.

Short-term contracts and project-dependent work arrangements in early-career phases often result in an increased pressure to produce high-impact publications. Institutions should consider changing hiring conventions and increasing job stability to reduce the risk of unemployment if research fails to produce impressive results.  

Although the pandemic was associated with increased burnout, fatigue, and poor mental health, it also provided some promise for the future of academia. Systematic changes implemented during this time could help decrease stress and burnout in the years to come.

Three years later, changes may not be as widespread as desired, but some modifications to the life of ECRs stuck: extending funding deadlines and reducing their importance has led to greater recognition of extenuating circumstances and research delays. Further, flexible working hours and remote work systems can benefit researchers with family or caring responsibilities.

Recent modifications provide hope that systematic remodelling to accommodate further changes is not as impossible as previously thought. However, significant progress is still needed to make academia a more attractive career path and ameliorate the stress levels and work-life balance of ECRs. Therefore, it is crucial that a shift occurs soon.