Working in academia, your mind is your greatest asset. To perform your best, your mind must be in top condition. What can really mess with your mind though, and ruin the performance, is stress, which seems to be an increasing problem. 49% of the respondents in a large survey into the experiences of research culture, agreed that they had difficulty dealing with work related stresses. We talked to Dr. Déborah Rupert, certified professional coach, on why this is the case and how the levels of stress can be reduced.
When the work-life balance gets out of balance
Many scientists are very passionate about their work. For some, the research ends up being a lifestyle where most hours awake are spent working on, or thinking about, the research project and related tasks. For sure, research can be extremely interesting, exciting, and fun. But, at the same time, there can be a lot of pressure related to the work performance, resulting in stress levels that ar too high and not sustainable in the long run.
Having experienced a close call herself during her PhD, Dr. Rupert, decided to change career path to help others in the same situation. Today, she works with science sustainability with the ambition to raise the awareness about burnout.
What is burnout?
- Burnout is a systematic stress, Dr Rupert says. It’s not like this dramatic crisis which leads to a trauma, and suddenly you feel bad. It may end up there, but burnout is rather a succession of small stress in your life that will exhaust you over time. And, its quite dangerous because we don’t see it coming. It is very subtle, but eventually it will drain you.
So which are the symptoms to look for?
- There are three categories of symptoms. First you have physical and emotional exhaustion. Physical stress could be for example that you have problems sleeping or that you are extremely tired. You loose concentration, you forget things. Your stomach may be upset, or you have this heartbeat. Examples of emotional stress could be that you don’t stand listening to others when they feel bad, or that you are irritated. Over time, this makes us change a bit who we are.
- The second category of symptoms are cynicism and detachment. We become more isolated and more pessimistic about the world. And the third category of symptoms include lack of productivity and effectivity. There is a feeling of hopelessness. Nothing makes sense, you may feel useless, you cannot make yourself do what you need to do, which is then followed by a sense of shame and guilt. These are the three categories of symptoms that come as a package.
Why do so many scientists end up in this situation? What are the reasons?
- There are many reasons for that, Dr Rupert says. First of all, academia is becoming more and more of a business. You are measured by your publications and the results, the funding that you have received, where you work. And all of that is driven by your need to generate results. Also, there is no limit to the workload. There is no union that is going to tell you that you are working too much and that you need to stop. The self-pressure is humongous. It is never good enough, and you always need to produce and work. And at the same time, in the work environment, its accepted to be stressed. Everyone is stressed. Stress is part of the package, and because its part of the package, it is hard to question it. Also, the amount of PhD students has never been this high. Its obvious when you start that if you want to have a career in academia, you better fight for it.
- All these factors are related to the academic culture and the system. Then you have factors that are related to the individual, and there I see two key contributors. First of all, we have the isolation. The way we work – you have your own research project and you often work alone. And on top of this, we have the fact that we are problem solvers, rational thinkers and high achievers. So over time, we may disconnect from our feelings, and the high achiever in us takes over and drives us to perform.
So there are two main contributors here - on one hand, you have the academic culture which contributes with external pressure, and at the same time, you have the internal factors, where the individual puts pressure on him/herself. So, is there anything we can do as individuals to reduce the pressure and lower the level of stress?
- The first thing that we need to do is to understand that its not our single responsibility, says Dr Rupert. We should not think that “its my stress and I have to deal with it”. Then, when it comes to handling our thoughts and feelings, its about becoming more aware of what it is to be human. We will have thoughts all the time, but we are not our thoughts. Because our brain is our working tool, we need to take care of it and we need to rest. And we need to slow it down because it tends to go in hyper-mode.
- One important thing that we can do is a very simple one, and that is to sleep. This is not new, but the importance of sleep is not empathized enough in society. The impact of lack of sleep is dramatic, and when it comes to thinking and taking decisions, if you are not rested, you won’t go very far. Even decisions on how to take care of yourself will be biased if you lack sleep. Beyond that, you have how we relate to our thoughts and emotions. We don’t learn in school that there is a voice in our head that will try to save us from danger non-stop and will engage in fight or flight mode. And if we run with it all the time, and go on autopilot, we will go all over the place and it will drive us crazy. So, we need to learn to have a relationship with our thoughts.
Tool, tips and Tricks to reduce the stress levels and take care of your mind
Listen to the full interview with Dr Rupert to learn more about well-being and stress-management for scientists. In the interview, we talk about what you can do yourself to improve the situation, and Dr Rupert shares several tips, tricks and tools that can help you reduce the stress levels and also help you take care of your mind.