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July 27, 2021

Mental health in the scientific world

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Mental health problems and illnesses can affect any member of society, and scientists and researchers are no exception. Recent studies show that the rates of depression and anxiety among post-graduate students are up to six times higher than in the general population, according to a 2018 study published in Nature. Despite the severity of the issue, the mental health of post-graduate students is massively overlooked, a study by the Council of Graduate Schools in Washington DC and the Jed Foundation in New York City reported last month. 

In the second episode of a series of panel discussions organized by Clustermarket, we debated with researchers and HR specialists about how mental health in the workplace is perceived in today’s organizations, and what further steps need to be taken to offer solutions that could change people’s lives.

To explore the subject, we brought together Joanna Grace Shaw, a post-graduate student in medical anthropology at the University of Illinois, Julieann Tate, an experienced HR leader, Founder of Talent & Tate organization and Head of Talent, Engagement and L&D at Lucid Group Communications, and Kimberly Holtz, an Industrial and Organizational psychologist working for the Norwegian start-up

Ending the stigma

“Mental health is not seen as a physical illness, like if someone got in a car wreck and needed recuperation time at home,” Shaw said. Although big strides have been made in recent decades, there’s still a lot of stigma around mental health in the workplace, Tate pointed out.

Stigma creates a cloud of shame and uncertainty that obscures what could be a clear path to recovery, explains a recent McKinsey report. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the US’s largest grassroots mental health organization, eight in ten workers say shame and stigma prevent them from seeking treatment for a mental health condition. 

This stigma often derives from the fact that taking time off to get your head back in the same place doesn’t tie in with today’s capitalist world, where working means constantly moving forward, Shaw said. “What is also stigmatized is people opening up and showing weakness and emotions,” Holtz added. Especially in high management levels where one needs to be tough and show a strong personality, opening up and sharing that they are not emotionally stable makes people afraid that they might lose their reputation at work, Holtz continued.

While in Covid times our mental health as a society is taking a hit, it is also opening doors to help de-stigmatize it. “This was such a cataclysm that everyone has had their mental health affected in some way or another. This leveled the playing field,” Shaw said. And more so, the short window of time when organizations are evolving their operations for post-pandemic life is the perfect moment to act, according to the McKinsey report.

You are not alone

In academia, mental health issues are more prevalent than we think, Charles Hoogstraten, an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Michigan State University who has struggled with clinical depression, shared in a Science magazine webinar on the subject. The nature of the scientific work itself, especially within STEM, adds an extra burden on the mental health of researchers. 

“The majority of your work as a researcher is figuring out what doesn’t work, and this bears down on your nerves,” Shaw explained. As researchers often have perfectionist tendencies and are highly detail-oriented and project-driven, working on a very complicated problem or process that triggers swinging emotions can burn one out much faster than in other professions.

There’s this culture in science projecting confidence and competence that interferes with seeking the help you need if you are struggling, Hoogstraten explained. “Also, for your colleagues, it tends to exacerbate the feeling that you are facing a unique struggle, that there’s something uniquely wrong with you because all of your colleagues are putting forward this wonderful front. The answer is: you’re not alone,” Hoogstraten said.

This high-stress environment of continual trial and error makes one irritable at work and not a good colleague, Shaw pointed out. It doesn’t come as a surprise that the mental health problems of one person can often spill over to their scientific work, make them treat their colleagues unfairly and often increase bullying in the workplace.

One solution to a toxic workplace environment could include being clearer with your colleagues about your boundaries. “There needs to be a more culturally accepted way of having conversations around boundaries,” Shaw explained. Telling people where your boundaries are is still taboo and often offends people and makes them defensive. “Those conversations should be more accessible and more commonplace within the workplace,” Shaw said. However, these discussions are still difficult for many people to have.

 Breaking the silence 

“Social support is a very important factor which can prevent mental health issues or help a person’s condition improve,” Holtz said. 

In academia, people tend to relocate often, and this often means leaving their peers and support system behind. Hoogstraten, who has also shared his own hard-won lessons in a 2017 Science essay, advises to proactively rebuild those systems in every new place before the stress kicks in, so the person has somebody to lean on when needed. 

Tate strongly agrees and believes that one of the most valuable things for good mental health is to have somebody that you can trust and speak to within the organization. This could be a dedicated person, or anyone you feel comfortable having a personal and confidential discussion with. “Having some of those formal pathways as well as informal ones is important.”

Stay tuned for more virtual events by Clustermarket and check out the recording.

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