Constant pressure to publish, long working hours, heavy workloads, and a highly competitive environment: research can be a stressful business. Search online for ‘stress’ and  ‘academia’ and numerous  surveys and articles can be found describing the pressures and demands encountered in the profession.  So perhaps, it is not surprising that a recent survey indicates academics experience more stress than average; the University and College Union 2012 occupational stress survey reported a stress value of 2.51 amongst academics compared to 3.65 for the average British working population, where 1 is the lowest level of well-being, and 5 is the highest. At the University of Manchester, the 2013 staff survey reported that of total staff, 61% occasionally and 33% frequently-to-always experience stress in the work place (figures which do not significantly differ from other Higher Education Institutions). In short, if you have experienced stress in the work place, you are not alone. The Health and Safety Executive defines workplace stress as: ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work’. Whilst the causes of stress may differ between people, undoubtedly there is relatable ground in the field of academia.

What causes you stress?

“The competitive environment, for example 100 applicants for 5 fellowship posts, and even once secured, you then most continually work harder to maintain progress on a career path which is being continuously judged and reviewed.” – PDRA, FLS.

“Job instability.  Relatively short research projects and not having a permanent contract means that you constantly need to be on the look-out for new jobs and projects.” – PDRA, MHS.

 “Juggling students, administration, my own research, and those last-minute e-mail requests at 4:55!” – PDRA, EPS.

“Simply put, not having enough time in the day! Having to plan experiments around the school run, project students and other work commitments can get really stressful.” – PDRA, MHS.

“Not enough praise for a job well done and managing unrealistic expectations.” – PDRA, EPS.

The more common reasons for stress reported by the University of Manchester staff survey included: workload, insufficient staff & resources, organisational change and lack of support from managers. Sound familiar? Add in to the mix a notable amount of personal investment, such as developing your own research ideas, devoting time and effort trying to a make an experiment work, or making personal sacrifices to put in those extra hours, and stress can be greatly intensified. This was highlighted in a recent Guardian article titled ‘Scientists and their emotions: the highs … and the lows’ where the interviewees described the difficulties of emotionally detaching themselves from ‘experiments which can take very long periods of time, sometimes years’.

From Incite issue 16 (2013).