Academics’ health suffers under Covid-19

Although there has been an increased interest in students’ mental health in recent years, limited attention has been paid to university staff members.

Universities are high-pressure environments at the best of times. Under lockdown and the other measures to reduce the spread of Covid-19 — such as physical distancing and reduced social interactions — these pressures are exacerbated.

According to Luca Morini, a research associate in education and media at Coventry University in the United Kingdom, higher education institutions have become “increasingly gamified with points and rankings, and winners and losers” and this is a contributing factor to the pressure that academics and professional staff feel in the workplace. This fierce competition is driven by a need by these institutions to remain at the top of the rankings both locally and internationally to attract the best students, employees and funding. In addition, academics have to deal with bigger class sizes, administrative work and produce research.

International studies indicate that more higher education employees are reporting high incidences of stress, anxiety and other forms of mental illness. In the UK, a 2019 report released by the Higher Education Policy Institute highlights an increase in referrals to counselling and occupational health services, in particular for female staff. Universities have become “anxiety machines” where excessive pressure to perform has been normalised. They struggle with excessive workloads, audits, contract employment and work performance management outcomes that are often unattainable. Essentially, academia has been turned into a “pie-eating contest where the reward is more pie”. 

In addition, boundaries between work and home life, a result in part to advances in technology, have been blurred, increasing the mental pressure on academics.

In 2018, the death by suicide of Professor Bongani Mayosi, the dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Cape Town, became the catalyst for public expressions of concern by higher education staff about mental wellbeing in academia. It also brought to the fore the additional pressures that people of colour face. For women too, sexism is used as another lens to dissect their contributions to the academic project. 

All these factors combined can negatively affect the mental wellbeing of those working in higher education. Yet these contributing factors are often neglected or considered taboo to mention — unless pushed to the fore by a tragedy.

Statistics released by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group in 2019 found that its suicide call centre received 179 090 calls over nine months — an average of 600 calls a day. Its online survey on Covid-19 and mental health released in April indicate that the main problems experienced during lockdown are feelings of anxiety and panic, financial stress, depression, poor family relations, suicidal feelings and substance abuse. In addition, the Department of Women, Youth and People with Disabilities reports an increase in gender-based violence. 

In the past weeks, our organisation has hosted webinar sessions focused on integrated lifestyle approaches for women in higher education. These sessions revealed that women experienced emotions and thoughts that suggested their mental wellbeing was compromised. Some reported anxiety, demotivation, sleeplessness and mood disorder. Some of the factors contributing to mental wellbeing decline or illness included, among others, email overload, cyberbullying, online meetings “fatigue”, poor leadership and the demands of online learning.

Societal progress relies on those who suffer to speak up. We know that by speaking up and seeking mental health support services as soon as possible, people are able to better manage their illness. But, because of the stigma associated with mental illness, many people choose to remain silent and suffer alone. 

How do higher education institutions improve their ability to deal with this problem during a crisis that is set to affect mental wellbeing? 

A multi-pronged approach is needed. Interventions should include people with mental health issues, colleagues, and leaders and focus on preventative measures, providing information to raise awareness of the issues and causes, and improved management of people’s health. Managers need to understand the forms of support staff members require. Webinars that draw in experts on mental wellness are useful, as is an online resource bank that people can tap into at a time that is convenient for them. This is already happening at some universities.

Universities can further support their employees by creating opportunities for them to voice their struggles, whether it be through surveys, forums or dialogues where everyone can help identify wellbeing challenges and the interventions needed.

We also need to stop regarding people with mental health problems as the cause of their illness, in much the same way we would not fault a cancer patient for their diagnosis. This requires universities to do some introspection and identify what contributes to mental illness. This can include reviewing workloads, performance management, promotions and family responsibility policies.

Communication is key to increase awareness and counter ignorance and this is where communications departments at universities can play a critical role in safeguarding people’s mental wellbeing.

Brightness Mangolothi is the director of Higher Education Resource Services South Africa (HERS-SA), a nonprofit formed to address the shortage of women in senior positions in the higher education sector. Lynne Rippenaar-Moses is the chair of HERS-SA’s board

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