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Mental Health for Academics

Dr Arendse and Dr Makgahlela
Dr Arendse and Dr Makgahlela



This mental health awareness month we wanted to delve into the lesser-known challenges around being an academic. Chasing that dream PhD comes with its ups and downs that most people are not aware of. These issues can cause someone to take longer to finish their work or even drop out. We asked 2 Psychologists, and friends to the institute; Dr Mpsanyana Makgahlela and Dr Danielle Arendse to share some opinion around these issues.




Q1: ​What do you think is the biggest cause of stress or metal strain for academics?​

Dr Makgahlela: ​Generally, the culture of academia on its own​ has become increasingly stressful with the dawn of Information and technologies (ICTs) whereby the turn-around-time for every activity is rapid. However, when there's poor management and leadership at all levels​​ in academia can be unhealthy to work in. In addition, factors such as lack of ​​material and ​human ​resources either for teaching and training or for research activities could make working in academia even more unbearable for academics.

Dr Arendse: I don't believe there's one specific or major cause of stress or mental strain for academics because everyone has different lives, responsibilities, and roles within academia. Having said that, I believe anxiety, pressure to keep up with work demands/deadlines whilst juggling issues at home and fatigue are growing concerns for academics. It is sometimes the accumulation of many small stressors that can also lead to mental strain. For example, replying to emails, doing marking, dealing with students, meetings, leading modules, coordinating courses, handling course work/preparing for lectures, juggling a PhD if you have not yet attained one, trying to publish and present at conferences to increase your academic citizenship and participating in academic committees can become overwhelming. This excludes the personal stressors that academics face.

Q2. ​What are the signs of mental stress academics should look out for?​

Dr Makgahlela:  To think of it, I am stressed as I am responding to this question. Initially, some signs of stress could be in the form of bodily tension especially around the neck and shoulders​, a chronic headache and sleep difficulties. These could be accompanied by constant brooding over work and procrastination over taking up some responsibilities. Being easily frustrated and irritable are some of the giveaways while for some a decline in morale may be experienced. In the long run, we can see someone who’s generally dissatisfied or disgruntled with every activity assigned to them at work. The tipping point could be when one becomes pessimistic, paranoid, and antagonistic, for instance, to supervisors or managers. All these could be indications that an academic is not finding pleasure in his/her work; and if the stress continues it could lead to severe health complications such as uncontrollable BP, stomach ulcers, burnout or even depression and suicidality. 

Dr Arendse: I would definitely warn academics against the signs of fatigue which could result in burnout. The signs of burnout include: feeling exhausted, pessimistic thoughts, low energy levels, disinterest in academic work, struggling to concentrate, not sleeping well, withdrawing/increased interpersonal conflicts, lacking motivation etc. I would also warn against signs of depression and increased levels of anxiety should not be ignored. These signs could include feeling nervous, panic, struggling to concentrate, changes in mood, sleep and eating patterns, lacking self-confidence etc.  

Q3: ​How do you think COVID affected academics? ​

Dr Makgahlela: Well, the pandemic came as a shock to everyone which lead to panic and anxiety for higher institution of learning. That on its one was stressful to students and lecturers. The situation was more frustrated by both students and lecturers having had to immediately start using virtual platforms for teaching, supervision ad research activities. Adjusting to the new mediums of teaching became stressful for many academics especially for those in universities which previously relied exclusively on the traditional face-2-face mode of teaching. ​In the same vein, most academics were greatly compromised with international travels which would have helped in the advancement of their careers ad research collaborations. For instance, I had to cancel a 6 weeks’ research visit to Nottingham Trent University in the UK as part of my NRF research sabbatical research project due to the pandemic. This constituted a lost opportunity for me while most of my research funds had to be returned back to the funder. I guess many other academics suffered the same fate due to the COVID 19 pandemic.

Dr Arendse: I believe Covid-19 has affected academics on two specific spheres, namely: organizationally and personally. Organizationally, the demand to proceed with academic work despite the disruption of Covid has seen an increased use of online platforms. Some academics may even suffer from fatigue related to online platforms such as zoom or teams. Although working from home comes at great convenience, it also comes with different types of stressors depending on the personal responsibilities of academics. The separation between work and home becomes difficult and thus fatigue increases. Grief, death and mourning the loss of loved ones has also been particularly difficult during Covid-19 and the effects of this should not be underestimated. Anxiety regarding health and social distancing has also placed a great burden on those far from loved ones. The anxiety of trying to stay healthy, practice social distancing and now, whether to get the vaccine are also worth considering. 

Q4: What is your advice for people struggling with stress caused by academic work?​

Dr Makgahlela: The truth is that the stressful culture ​of ​academia, that is, having to juggle between teaching and training yet having to attract research funds and publishing could result in stress and feelings of incompetence for those failing to fit into this grand narrative. ​More so that the culture is still characterized by the individualistic and competitive philosophy to work. This can be very alienating and traumatic especially for upcoming academics. My advice would be that academics need to start embracing collaborations in all of their academic activities to release some pressure. When one has a strong support structure in academia it makes the stress bearable. To those on the receiving end of poor leadership, unfortunately, they don’t have control over the decision making processes thus it might be safe to realise that if the system is poorly managed, shipping out may be the best possible solution before it takes a toll on your mental and physical health. It is my view that, like in any stressful working environment, most academics end up suffering from chronic health conditions to years of compounded stress while in some cases some of the stress could have been avoided by considering a change to institutions that are well run and accommodating to the needs of academics. Our work sometimes gets in the way of everything else that we end up neglecting our heath by not eating properly, not exercising, not getting enough rest whilst we fail to spend time with our families and friends. This may need to be corrected academics for improved mental health and wellbeing. After all, COVID-19 appears to be here to stay, and therefore, online learning platforms are the new reality that all of us have to embrace moving into the future. 

Dr Arendse:  My advice would be that if you feel that you are not coping, don't ignore it. Don't try to push yourself further. Speak to your HOD and if necessary, try speaking to a psychologist. It's important to take care of yourself and to forgive yourself when you are not able to do things you were able to do prior to Covid-19. When you start feeling overwhelmed by work and deadlines or by personal issues that are affecting your productivity, it is best to approach your supervisor /HOD. Also reach out to friends and family for support. It is also important to take note of your physical well-being, such as getting enough sleep, taking time to relax and doing something you enjoy. I would also like to encourage academics to look out for one another and to practice kindness. Try to be supportive and understanding towards your colleagues. 

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