researchers, mental health, and bullying – starting a discussion

I spoke last Friday morning at #DISRUPTICON — Coventry University’s meeting designed to get the sector talking about how we can Disrupt Research Practices. As an ‘unconference’ we were encouraged to participate in unconventional ways, and to facilitate discussion in the room, rather than straight up presenting what we know.

This was a perfect way for me to engage with a new topic of investigation for me. As the lone researcher in my department, I have to work a bit harder than many to access those early formative critical discussions needed for defining a research question or research area. So the liberation of asking a room full of people ‘I’ve noticed this is happening, what’s that about?’ rather than having to present an expert view was ideal.

Because I’m not an expert in the area of Workplace Bullying — but I can spot it when I see it. I’ve been in the privileged position of leading research into Trust and Research Supervison in the last few years, and so have been witness and confidante to students (and to early career staff too) who are struggling in their research and in their health, because of the toxic relationships and environments in which they find themselves tangled, and the impact this has on their work, lives and careers. Open data collection through a blog comments system, and interviews across institutions informed me that this is not a Sheffield thing. Wider, in UK and international blogs, and in the media, toxic supervision, bullying conditions, and mental health are documented.

As the basis for my #DISRUPTICON session I provided two comparative annotated web sources, and tried to provoke wider discussion in the workshop by drawing parallels between them. The first was a Guardian ‘Academics Anonymous’ article from 2017 — entitled ‘Not all PhD supervisors are natural mentors – some need training.’ — this (and the many comments on the article) sparked my full attention and I tweeted angrily about it at the time. What’s presented by the poor PhD student whose story is shared as the presence or absence of a particular pedagogical skill set (supervision, or mentoring), is actually quite recognisably workplace bullying. Here is a long excerpt from that article reporting several accounts of bullying:

On days when I collected data, my supervisor would repeatedly ask me to “get as much data as possible”. He would inquire: “How many data points did you get today?” and “What is the data point count now?” These questions would be fired at me throughout the day and in emails late into the evening, often multiple times in the same night, when he was expecting me to still be analysing and interpreting data from the day’s experiments.

This demanding attitude was a reflection of my supervisor’s high standards and his drive to produce as many high-quality papers as possible. Although it can be good to be pushed hard, eventually it broke me. I wanted to make a real contribution to science, but the constant stream of requests accompanied by such little encouragement made me feel like nothing was ever enough. Not enough data, not enough publications, just not good enough.

One of the most stressful experiences was a big presentation in my first year. Not only was I addressing the other scientists in my field at my university, but other staff from different disciplines had also come to watch.

 I needed to be knowledgeable, interesting and poised. But I was shaking and flustered, and I could barely advance my slides. Standing at the front of the room, it felt as though my supervisor was radiating judgment. I stumbled through my introduction, misspoke a few times, and generally missed the mark on the whole poise idea, but I managed to finish the entire presentation with only a few mistakes.

 After the talk, I ventured back to my supervisor’s office. When I walked in, he turned to meand said, “You didn’t do a good job. You have done nothing to be proud of today.”

 I was crushed. There is a line between constructive criticism and cruelty, and I watched him cross it. I tried to stand up for myself, arguing that I was early in my career and that I hadn’t done terribly. He simply disagreed and said he wouldn’t say anything different because he couldn’t tell me something that wasn’t true. I left his office, swayed into mine, shut the door and cried.

 Many interactions with my supervisor were like this, and they left me feeling like nothing I did was good enough. My confidence was shaken – I questioned my identity as a scientist constantly. I thought: how do I know whether or not I am doing a good job? Am I lazy? Do I have low standards for my work? Maybe I just need attention and approval?

 I even wondered whether I have a weak personality because I couldn’t take the continuousbarrage of requests. I also wondered how my gender – female – affected both his and my interpretation of my progress. I questioned my work ethic constantly and routinely thought about dropping out.

My second source for discussion was chosen to help us interpret stories like the one above ’20 Subtle Signs of Bullying at Work’ (available here) a list of the more obvious workplace bullying behaviours (threats, spying, embarrassment, belittling, abuse) and the more subtle (undermining, blocking advancement or development, shaming, inconsistency, blaming, pitting people against each other) — do read all of these and think about them. As you look around you and see these things happening, being able to name the behaviour as bullying will be useful to you in resisting and challenging it.

I have observed all of the behaviours on both lists through the course of my research into doctoral and postdoctoral experiences, and my work supporting stuck thesis writers across institutions.

Here’s a tiny amount of illustrative data:

“He locked me in his office because we disagreed on number of hours I was working in the lab. He said, ‘ok, if you’ve got time to waste, you, can waste it here’ — and he went off for lunch. Of course I just phoned up the reception desk and our security guy let me out. He said I should complain, but, how? I’d waste time talking it over with people who’d do nothing to help me. Sure, maybe there’d be no more such visible incidents, but the relationship would not improve.”= Intrusion, Punishment, Revenge

“There was a time when she was like, if you’re not going to make the effort and come to the pub, then you’re going to get behind pretty quickly because that’s where we have group meetings.”Isolation/exclusion.

“I’m out of funding and so out of money. He suggested I move in with him rent free so I could continue working for free on data for the paper he’ll get the credit for. He said working for no pay would mean he could forget how angry he was with me for not getting it done on time.”Intimidation, Taking credit.

“Rather than support me in my ambition to get my own funding he took the step of supporting an external competitor. He needs me in the lab running things, he’s not got a clue.”= Blocking advancement or growth, Campaigning.

So, in my workshop we compared examples, swapped stories, supported each other, and discussed what is a very difficult problem — what can we start to do about this?

Bullying is a big piece of the puzzle in postgraduate student mental health — a subject which is absolutely all over the internet at present, and a recent HEFCE funding priority. Doctoral students experience many stressors relating to academic pressure and workload which are sustained over a period of several years (see figure below). Media attention, and emerging research on occupational stress among university environments indicates that it is widespread, and that instances are increasing, especially among junior researchers (Bozeman and Gaughan, 2011; Reevyand Deason, 2014), with as many as 32% of PhD students in a Belgian sample at risk of developing common psychiatric disorders (Levecque, Anseel, De Beuckelaer, Van der Heyden, & Gisle, 2017).

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Of course this is not an ‘all supervisors are demons, all students are victims’ issue. There is a phenomenal amount of pressure on everyone to perform, to get data, write high impact papers, be productive, compete for money, be excellent. It’s a high stress environment, academics are stressed, and that stress trickles down through their close relationships. But the PhD researcher is the most vulnerable party, and the one with the least power. A PhD is high stakes and here’s little room to manoeuvre away from a toxic relationship without jeopardising your degree, and future career. The supervisor then, has a special role in mediating the other PhD stressors, their support is crucial, their lack of support is devastating.

Workplace bullying is a potent social stressor with consequences more severe than the effects of other stressors frequently encountered within organizations. The finding that bullying has a considerable effect on exposed individuals also when controlling for the effects of other job stressors demonstrates bullying as a serious problem at workplaces that needs to be actively prevented and managed in its own right (Hauge et al, 2010).

Plus, bullying has an independent effect on mental distress even after adjusting for job demands and sense of control. Mental distress was also found to be a predictor of bullying, indicating that the reverse relationship is also important (Bakke Finne et al, 2011) — stressed people are more likely to experience bullying as well. See this video I made for some clues as to why. And read my post here for clues about what to do if your students are stressed.

Below are the notes we made in their raw format:

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To summarise the key messages from Friday’s group discussion:

  • We need to see the ‘person’ in the research, not just the project, or the data, or the statistic.
  • We must ensure that the channels we expect researchers to use to tell us what’s going on, are free from bias and silencing as without the right processes our 1:1 support is redundant.
  • We need independent Postgraduate Researcher representation through the Students’ Unions, it’s our job to work with our SUs to help them understand PhD issues.
  • It’s our duty to prevent academic women form disproportionally ‘picking up the pieces’ in cases of bullying.
  • We need data, at every level on instances and cases of bullying — how could Vitae or UKRI support this?
  • This is often a matter of research integrity, as well as personal integrity — how can the UK Research Integrity Office support this?
  • Lets create better ways to allow students to take partial credits and move on from a bullying supervisor — give them the power back.
  • Supervisor ‘training’ only does so much, we need ways to tackle bad behaviour at work, not overlook the problem individuals.
  • Departmental leadership is critical to creating good research environments. How can we strengthen this leadership?

The disruptive discussion has started.

As always, your thoughts, feedback and criticism is welcome in the comments.

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