The Stressful Life of an Academic

(January 21st, 2014) University life is viewed by many as stress-free. Historically, perhaps, this was true, but not any more according to new research from Estonia and France showing that 40% of academics suffer occupational stress.

Stress is omnipresent, whether at home or at the workplace, we’re constantly under pressure. Life, especially of people in Western societies, seems to be dictated by deadlines and to-do-lists - the life of academics is no exception to that rule, on the contrary. In a recent publication researchers from Tallinn University of Technology (TUT) in Estonia and the University of Bordeaux in France report the findings of their study investigating the sources and prevalence of stress in academia.

The researchers firstly conducted a preliminary study at TUT in order to identify sources of pressure, as reported by the academics themselves. TUT scientists identified, on average, ten sources of occupational stress each, and altogether they identified 90 separate sources. Among them was the need to work late in the evening or on weekends, increasing bureaucracy and insufficient appreciation for commitment or work performance as well as the devaluation of education in society.

Then, to see whether the high number of stressors was unique to this institute or academia-wide, the researchers carried out a more extensive study involving several Estonian universities and the University of Bordeaux in France. The French institute was included in order to see whether academia in another country was equally stressful to that in Estonia. This time the 90 stressors identified in the pilot study were listed (randomly ordered) and academics were asked to rate them from 1 to 6 according to how big a source of stress they were. The survey included 8 major categories of stress at universities; university life/ social relationships, students and teaching, workload, personal life and identity, evaluation of knowledge in society, bureaucracy, personal development and infrastructure.

Overall approximately 40% of all academics surveyed, both in the Estonian institutes and the University of Bordeaux, reported to suffer from occupational stress. Furthermore, all 90 factors were identified as stress-causing in all institutes surveyed. Between the different Estonian Universities the intensity of stress for each factor was comparable, but between the French Institute and the Estonian Institute there were significant differences. Although bureaucracy and high workload were universally identified as high stress sources, at the University of Bordeaux the other major source of stress was professional development whereas in the Estonian Universities it was concerns about evaluation of knowledge in society. Estonian academics also reported students as a bigger source of stress than scientists at the University of Bordeaux – which included the students being ill-prepared, absent, and lacking motivation, responsibility and discipline. Both had in common a certain, almost psychopathological, fear – the Monday morning email fear.

Mare Teichmann et al. describe “the fear of opening one’s own e-mail box on Monday morning was the most typical reaction to e-mail stress. The interviewees were worried and afraid of something, e.g. finding among their e-mails some orders or commands that were sent during the weekend. Twelve interviewees described anxiety, negative emotions, and depressive thoughts. Anxiety was described as a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome. Do you recognise yourself?

How these findings compare with other professions is yet to be determined, but it is clear that academia is not as stress-free as outsiders might least in the opinion of the academics themselves.

Nicola Hunt

Picture: Fotolia/shockfactor

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