June 18th – 22nd was Researcher Wellbeing Week at the University of Sheffield. Whilst the wellbeing of our research students and staff is always a priority for the university, and we have an established researcher wellbeing programme, taking a specific week to focus attention on the wellbeing of our researchers, is useful as it gives people the opportunity to come together together to discuss the issues that are affecting them and to try their hand at a variety of activities that they might not otherwise.
It could be easy to look at our programme of events for the week and think “Yeah. Sounds fun, but what good does it actually do?” In the same way that “self care” isn’t (just) about having a candle-lit bubble bath or taking some “me time” to play computer games in your pyjamas, there’s obviously more to wellbeing than taking time out to have fun, so why bother with these types of wellbeing interventions?
We know that being a researcher is tough. Whether you’re a doctoral researcher writing up your thesis, whilst trying to secure a job that’s meaningful to you, or a member of research staff, working to take your next step into a bigger project or permanent job. It can be stressful – without even touching on the fact that you’re an ACTUAL person with ACTUAL stuff going on outside your research!
There are big issues around funding research and competition for academic jobs. These absolutely impact on researcher wellbeing, and are issues for the whole sector. The Think Ahead team works with senior leaders and research staff associations within the university, and networks outside, contributing to the conversations about researcher issues and finding ways to improve the researcher experience at the university. For example, the team worked to develop a researcher-specific SRDS form and guidance, to enable and empower researchers to have m
eaningful conversations about their development and career aspirations (rather than the SRDS meeting having the potential to turn into just an elongated project planning and review session).
Nevertheless, I believe that the types of wellbeing activities and interventions that take place during our Researcher Wellbeing Week and throughout the year can be really valuable. Obviously, believing something doesn’t make it true, which is why our researcher wellbeing work and the wider Think Ahead programme is anchored in research.
It can be easy to think that playing with a puppy, learning circus ski
lls, sketching, singing or having a go at making healthy treats is just good, clean fun (and, don’t get me wrong, it certainly is!), but plenty of research shows that social isolation (and, importantly, the perception of social isolation) is as bad for health as smoking or obesity. As over 60% of PhD researchers report feeling isolated, these types of activities are important to supporting s
ocial interaction and wellbeing.
Also, learning new skills has proven wellbeing benefits, and as one researcher put it:
“When you’re doing research, it can seem like you don’t achieve an actual outcome for ages. It felt really great to leave the sketching workshop with something tangible that I’d created.”
And, puppies? Well; where to start with the research about petting dogs and wellbeing? Actual improvements in heart health!
These all seem pretty good, to me, but we absolutely recognise that these activities are not for everyone, and ensured that the week also included structured workshops and discussions around managing professional relationships, dealing with stress, supporting people with mental health issues and how on earth to achieve a work-life balance in academia. We also worked with our brilliant networks to provide one to one support for ill and disabled researchers.
Finally, it’s a bit of a cliché, but I’d like to say a MASSIVE THANK YOU to everyone who participated in and, particularly, who organised events for Researcher Wellbeing Week. We really couldn’t have done it without you. Your ideas were great and the work you put into making your events such a success was fantastic. I’m already looking forward to finding out what you all come up with for next year.