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Does the unhappiness of scientists influence the quality of research?

Anna K. Stelling-Germani

Anna K. Stelling-Germani

Anna is a half German half Italian scientist who grew up in a small town near Vienna, Austria. She is working in the field of cancer research at the University of Zürich. Currently she is facing a new challenge in her life by becoming a mom in June 2018. Anna has lived in Italy, Austria, England, Sweden and Switzerland and loves to travel the world and experience new cultures.

Mental health issues are on the rise within academia. The working conditions resulting from publishing pressure are leading to stress and bad work-life balance. Many young academics are unhappy and want to leave science as soon as they finish their PhD. These factors likely result in an overall decrease in the quality of research, which has to be halted in order to maintain a good progression of knowledge.

Science is a windy, gruelling, uphill climb that might end abruptly at the edge of a cliffwrites Rebecca Wild on her blog on naturejobs. This description summarizes a feeling that many scientists share. Many scientists work in academia, in research groups that are affiliated to universities. Academia, unfortunately, does not present itself as a stable working environment, with short-term contracts, dependency on external funding and a questionable work-life balance.

Young academics are struggling with their career and many are experiencing mental health issues. In a study published by Katia Levecque and colleagues in 2017 conducted on PhD students in Belgium, it was found that one in three PhD students is at risk of developing a psychiatric disorder. The number one candidate for such a disorder was depression (1), which has previously been linked to significantly impaired work performance (2). Until now, no research on bigger cohorts exists on the mental health of young scientists and its influence on their performance. Nevertheless, I can trust these preliminary findings through personal experience in the natural sciences. I know many enthusiastic scientists that started their PhDs with great motivation and inspired to change the world by doing science. Now looking at many of them, I see a lot of sad faces with a complete lack of motivation. Recently I spoke to a woman that had been awarded with a PhD title a few years back and when I asked her if she was still working in academia her answer was: “Oh God no, I wanted to get out of there as soon as I could”. This is, unfortunately, a very common view among PhD students. The scientific journal Nature covered the issue in a few articles and reported that they were flooded with personal experiences of PhD students that had faced or witnessed mental health issues during their academic career.

Long working hours, stress and the resulting disparity of work-life balance were all recently found to be major problems for young academics in a survey issued by the Young Academy of Europe. A poll that was published in 2016 revealed that 40% of early career researchers worked more than 60 hours per week, of which 9% even reported to be working more than 80 hours (3). This exceeds by far the global average of around 40 hours per week. These problems result from high external pressure to publish in high quality journals (discussed here) as well as from internal pressure from professors due to their own unstable working conditions. Short-term contracts in academia are creating pressure and stress for scientists at all career levels. The long working hours and stress that result from this cycle for PhD students is certainly not increasing their productivity – rather the contrary. An article by Jonathan Chan on Huffpost nicely summarizes why working longer makes you less productive: it leads to health issues, it does not increase your efficiency and working too long leads to more errors in your work. Furthermore, it has been proven that unhappy workers are significantly less productive than their happy counterparts (4).

stressedresearcher_1
Stressed researcher, cartoon @ Nadia Pulvirenti for Culturico (copyright)

This leads to one obvious consideration to be made: it is very likely that unhappy scientists reduce the overall quality of science. Considering that PhD students and Postdoctorates are contributing the majority of the scientific data that is being produced, we can only imagine how much science could be improved if scientists were happier. It could lead to an accelerated progression of knowledge due to more productivity and to work containing fewer errors that are currently being made by overworked scientists. More motivated scientists might be able to come up with more brilliant and inspired ideas, impacting the overall quality of science. Measures clearly have to be taken to increase the happiness of scientists in order to guarantee a constant and fast progression of our knowledge.

The journal Nature suggests that university institutions need to install working bodies for academics and support them when facing mental health issues, and students need to be given the possibility to speak about their problems. Supervisors need to receive professional training to help their employees when they are facing mental health issues. Additionally (and Nature could play a major role in this suggestion) a change in the scientific publishing and hiring system is needed on a larger scale to decrease the pressure on supervisors and their employees. A proper work-life balance could be guaranteed by implementing rules on working hours and overhour compensations in a way people now receive when working in the private sector. Furthermore, stable contracts with paid maternity leave and retirement securities should be offered regularly instead of fellowships without any securities of these kinds.

Lately, certainly influenced by the publication that came out in 2017 (1), there has been strong media coverage and interest in the struggle of young scientists in academia. In May 2019, the first international conference on the mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate researchers was held, underlining the importance of this topic. Several well-funded projects were started in order to tackle this increasing problem. These projects aim to reveal the reasons behind the struggles of young academics and to find ways to overcome them.

One thing is clear: a way to keep the passion of young scientists alive needs to be found and mental health issues need to be resolved. Scientific progression has improved the lives of many people, and the importance of scientists doing research for our world is undeniable. Without scientists we would not be able to fight dangerous diseases with vaccines or prolong the life of cancer patients with novel treatment options. We would not have electricity and all the digital gadgets that facilitate our daily life. The world needs science and progression of knowledge. Hopefully, the increased interest of media and society in the issue will contribute to making academic science a happier and more fruitful place.

 

Anna K. Stelling-Germani

 

References:

  1. Levecque, K. et al., “Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students”, Research Policy, 2017
  2. Lerner D. et al., “Work performance of employees with depression: the impact of work stressors”, American Journal of Health Promotion, 2010
  3. Woolston, C. “Full-time is full enough”, Nature Careers, 2017
  4. Oswald AJ. et al., “Happiness and Productivity”, Journal of Labour Economics, 2015
Received: 28.06.19, Ready: 30.08.19, Editors: BK, AFB.

 

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