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The psychological toll for academic staff

The psychological toll for academic staff

[iStock.com / Issalina]

Earlier this fall, a McMaster University research team published the findings of a broad survey that sought to take the temperature of the university and college workplace almost a year-and-a-half into the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the major findings won't come as a surprise to academic staff: many of the 475 respondents reported that the COVID-19 distancing restrictions had eroded productivity, as labs closed, field research activities ceased and parents of young children, particularly women, found themselves juggling domestic and professional duties.

But two other findings offered a more somber and textured look at the impact of the pandemic. More than half of those surveyed said they thought more or much more about death than they had before the World Health Organization declared a global state of emergency in March 2020.

And the vast majority said the pandemic had produced decidedly uneven outcomes. "Ninety-one percent of respondents agreed that some groups were disproportionately impacted including early career researchers (82%), parents (99%), women (72%), 2SLGBTQ+ (19%), those with physical or mental disabilities (63%), and BIPOC populations (35%)."

To the study's lead investigator, Marisa Young, an associate professor of sociology and Canada Research Chair in Mental Health and Work-Life Transitions, those statistics "really draws attention to the mental health circumstances of academics. If we're not going to be a healthy workforce, we're not going to be as productive as the university or college wants us to be."

The pandemic ignited, or at least amplified, a far-reaching societal reckoning with mental health. Seizing on widespread acceptance of telehealth, governments expanded access to psychological services. Some employers are rejigging benefits packages. And the almost universal strains of the crisis had the effect of dissipating some of the stigma associated with conditions like depression, anxiety and stress.

Yet as Canadians grapple with the new Omicron variant and the pandemic lumbers into its third year, academic staff associations are demanding clearer answers to questions about how universities and colleges will adjust their own practices in response to evidence like the results of the McMaster study, as well as similar research conducted at other universities.

Based on academic staff surveys conducted in June of 2020 and 2021, Jennifer Davis, an assistant professor of management at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Healthy Living and Chronic Disease Prevention, says those who are caregivers, racialized, women and tenure track researchers faced higher rates of stress and mental health concerns. Her surveys revealed increased use of alcohol and cannabis, and only 56% felt socially supported by their institution.

Delayed research projects and fewer publications have compounded professional stress. "One of the takeaways might be to use [this] information to rethink what the promotion and tenure process looks like for early career researchers," she observes.

But many early-stage researchers, Davis adds, also expressed dissatisfaction with the institutional response — a one-year extension on probationary periods for tenure track faculty. "It's a stressful window to be in the pre-tenure window," she comments. "[They're] not necessarily wanting to add a year but would prefer the opportunity to have some of the evaluation framework re-thought."

Soon after the beginning of the pandemic, academic staff associations negotiated letters of understanding (LOU) with universities and colleges, acknowledging a host of work-related concerns such as childcare, online teaching, intellectual property rights and accommodation issues. A few, though not many, included language about mental health supports.

The Faculty Association of the University of Waterloo (FAUW) has added mental health advice and links to its own website, including reminders for its members about their rights if they find themselves confronted by debilitating conditions. As the FAUW's mental health supports page notes, "Remember that you have options if your situation is impacting your ability to work, including therapy, accommodations, and leaves."

As the lock-down progressed and the psychological toll mounted, academic staff associations were able to better understand the mental health implications, not just with respect to productivity, but also those related to rapidly pivoting to online instruction and working from home. That shift entailed creating online content, learning virtual teaching platforms, and, more recently, doubling up on teaching time as some universities have adopted hybrid models that allow students to select between in-person and remote.

"Work-life balance has been completely out-of-whack," says Susan Spronk, director of the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa and co-chair of the CAUT Equity Committee. "We're particularly concerned about the equity implications of what this is going to mean."

She says that surveys conducted in 2020 by the Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa (APUO) reveal that stress levels increased between May and November. "This is a worrying trend, and we continue to negotiate letters of understanding aimed at coping with the situation."

Many institutions have tended to focus mental health resources on students. The University of Alberta, for example, has offered expanded access to a range of counselling and wellness services. But, as Spronk points out, such measures address the symptoms, and not the systemic causes.

"While useful," the APUO noted last winter, "these resources tend to address mental health issues on campus as purely individual issues and to neglect their structural and systemic components, whether it is the pressure associated with the rising cost of tuition fees, the fact that [Student Academic Success Service] is operating beyond its capacity, poor students-professor and students-librarian ratios, or the increasing workload of professors, librarians, and support staff. Mental health can’t be isolated from its context."

Nor have universities and colleges accounted for the fact that many academic staff found themselves compelled to support the emotional distress of some of their students — a situation that, in itself, imposed additional stresses on already overburdened instructors.

At McMaster, Young observes, the university has established wellness centres for students struggling with panic attacks or breakdowns. But, she says, the counsellors don't necessarily understand their particular academic pressures. "Instead, these students are going to go to their professors to talk to them about [a] deadline, and then before you know it, they're talking about all of the circumstances in their life and how they lost someone to COVID."

Young says academic staff, in effect, are shouldering an additional emotional burden of having to support distressed students. While many had hoped that a full or partial return to in-person classes this fall would ameliorate some of the symptoms of social isolation, the pandemic's psychological toll has persisted. "From what I see anecdotally, it's getting worse."

The provision of virtual counselling, she adds, shouldn't be seen as a cure-all, and certainly not a substitute for more informal peer-support groups. "A lot of these online remedies that are being presented, and even a lot of the advice that we've been given, I don't think is very helpful, because it doesn't include other people who are experiencing similar circumstances."

Given all that's transpired over the past 21 months, it seems likely that mental health will become a high-profile issue in contract negotiations in the next few years. During the fall strike at the University of Manitoba, nurse educators cited workplace stressors, such as nursing shortages, increasing interpersonal violence and moral distress on the frontline, as factors contributing to the increased incidence of mental health problems within the profession.

The University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA) had flagged mental health as an issue in its pre-strike communications to members. "Over the last 21 months," says UMFA President Orvie Dingwall, "the most significant issue UMFA has heard from its members that is impacting their mental health is the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic" which necessitated virtual teaching and led to rising workloads and childcare pressures. During the strike, UMFA offered members the option of virtual picketing, and provided mindfulness counselling. Dingwall says some of the language in the new contract aims to alleviate some of the stressors and anxiety that were fueling mental health pressures facing members.

At the University of Lethbridge, where academic staff have been without a collective agreement since June 2020, the University of Lethbridge Faculty Association warns that ongoing layoffs and wage rollbacks have had a negative impact on member mental health.

The APUO’s Spronk says that bargaining issues for her association include better coverage of mental health services. She notes that at Carleton University sessions with a therapist are entirely covered, whereas the University of Ottawa pays just 50%. "We need to bargain for 100% of psychological services," says Spronk.

Indeed, one of the most important solutions to pandemic mental health problems had been identified before the pandemic and it is even more relevant now, Spronk adds. "We need to keep pushing the issue of workload. We can't isolate mental health from that context."