I’m going to let you all into a little secret. As much as I love reading this blog, I don’t always love writing for it. In fact, it wouldn’t be wholly inaccurate to say that, in the run up to it being my turn, there is a wailing and gnashing of teeth to my friends about how it can POSSIBLY be my go again and what on EARTH I’m going to write about.
This time, however, rather than just whinging at my mates and mashing my keyboard in despair, I reached out to some friends and colleagues across the UK and USA who are or have been researchers, to find out what they really wish that they’d known more about when they were doing their PhD or research contract.
If we discount the response of “ROBOT UNICORNS” (thanks, Sam, this one’s for you…), the overwhelming theme was that researchers wish they’d given themselves more of a break, and taken time off. Worryingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, several mentioned the culture of pressure and expectation in their department. This researcher, from a UK university, put it starkly:
“In the last year of my PhD I was encouraged to overdo it to the point that I took just 8 days holiday and worked 80 hour weeks, including weekends. As well as taking its toll mentally, my physical health was so affected that I ended up having to leave academia.”
Several other people reported startlingly similar occurrences, speaking to a sector-wide sickness that we need to address in order to protect the mental and physical health of our students and staff.
In The Telegraph, in 2015, Professor Mark Cropley, from the University of Surrey, cited a study that found men who were unable to mentally relax after work had a threefold increase risk of heart disease, noting that:
“Inadequate psychological recovery, or poor disengagement from work, is associated with a range of health problems including cardiovascular disease, fatigue, negative mood and sleep disturbance.”
It’s not new news that work stress affects our physical health, but we all need to take it seriously for ourselves and the people we work with.
So, please, for those of you with a public holiday on Monday, take a break! In fact, I really hope that this post is a bit out of date by the time you read it, since that might mean that you didn’t log into email or look at “work Twitter” (which, as everybody knows, is entirely different to “puppy Twitter” or “smashing the patriarchy Twitter”) for the day.
Go for a walk; get back into a neglected hobby; heck, even do some ironing in front of a film – just something that isn’t your day job. Even if you do nothing on your day off, it’s good for you!
And, lest you think I’m an appalling hypocrite, posting this on a bank holiday, let me assure you that I used the dark magic of post-scheduling, and was skipping out of the door at half past five on Friday, to switch off my brain entirely, by means of The Meg. See? No brain required.
Obviously, merely taking a day’s holiday does not address the sector-wide culture of overwork and unreasonable expectations, but it can help you to feel better and to give yourself permission to not work all the time.
Across the HE sector, discussions are taking place that seek to address the mental health challenges of researchers, and the academic cultures in which they blossom. This is encouraging, but – as with all culture change – takes longer than we’d like. Remember that – whether staff or student – your university has a duty of care to you; if you’re struggling, please ask for help.