This week the Institute of Physics have begun to promote their new guide to resilience* and around the University there have been a range of wellbeing themed events tied in with mental health and wellbeing week (as well as the one I’m running on April 21st). After spending far more of the week than usual delivering training workshops, I’ve had many conversations with researchers from PhDs in their first month, to senior professors and resilience kept emerging as a theme. The training programmes were on diverse subjects – supervision, collaboration, international networking and developing research leadership, but there was a common thread of people discussing how they cope with challenges and demands.
Why is resilience/wellbeing such a hot topic? In positive terms, I would like to think it is because we’ve become a more tolerant and understanding society (yeah, I know. It doesn’t always feel like this.); we feel more comfortable talking about the things that grind us down and less judgmental about people with issues. We should also acknowledge that being a researcher has become more challenging– more competition for funding, more rejected papers, more demands on time, the beginning of momentum towards REF, the corrosive uncertainty around BREXIT and … actually, I’m going to stop there. Times are tough.
An article in the Guardian last summer raised concerns about the overuse of the term resilience and it encroaching into discussions about mental health. Having run resilience workshops for a few years I’d echo this concern – I have no clinical or professional expertise in mental health and am careful to promote the work of our excellent Counselling Services for students and staff if I feel conversations are moving in this direction.
Although mental health issues need to be addressed by trained staff, when we look at resilience, there’s a role we can all play in making our university a more supportive and understanding place. Some of these are our responsibilities to ourselves, others things that we can do for others. (I feel I should add that as I’ve developed my thinking about resilience I’ve spoken to people with the expertise mentioned above and am grateful for their guidance.) Here are a few ideas for researchers to help develop their own resilience and support others around them.
Remember, it’s not just you. I deliberately mentioned early in the blog the range of people, some at senior levels, who used the “group therapy” aspect of a workshop to share their perspectives, frustrations and advice. Research, by its nature, is about uncertainty and working at times on things that will fail. The failure is piled on by the process of funding and publishing research, so don’t take this personally. Finding strategies to manage setbacks and keep going will give you a set of behaviours that will serve you well in academia.
For others… talk about setbacks and frustrations when they happen and also the way in which you pick yourself up. If you are a more established academic, remind early career researchers that your successes are part of a hidden CV of failures – a term coined by Dr Melanie Stefan, a colleague at Edinburgh.
Be clear about what you are aiming for. Having an eye on the longer-term prize (the joy of being able to study and investigate a topic that inspires you) might help you get over day to day frustrations. Seeing individual hurdles as a “means to an end” can help maintain momentum when your motivation flags. Having a longer-term vision can also help you to make better decisions – this is one of the strategies we work with on the Research Leader programme.
For others… talk to people who seem to be struggling with short-term difficulties about their career goals. This might help them see how they are progressing or gain some perspective on how important the thing causing stress in that moment actually is.
Don’t isolate yourself. One of the consistent messages from mental health charities and organisations is that of the importance of networks and relationships to improve mental health. If things are going badly, don’t draw away from other people.
For others… keep an eye out for colleagues and if they are absent from meetings, coffee breaks and generally keeping a low profile, take a moment to check and ask if everything is OK. Like many universities we suffer from a lack of shared, social space in schools, so this needs to be on your radar.
Balance your time and your energy. Time management is a major resilience issue, particularly because of the fragmentation of time which seems to be a modern curse. Try to look at your work flow and see if it’s possible to move tasks and meetings around so you are writing, reading, thinking at times of the day when you feel more energised and perhaps doing other things in the short spaces between meetings and lectures. Time management will be a theme of a future blog post. You also need to accept that you can only do so much and that habitually working longer hours doesn’t generate high quality outputs. Short bursts for important deadlines may be necessary, but don’t give into a presenteeism culture. Take breaks and enjoy our beautiful city!
For others… encourage people to take breaks, but also respect their need for peace and quiet in shared spaces, for unbroken periods to write rather than interrupting them and to work from home if your work environment is busy.
Step back from difficult situations. If things are starting to get too much for you, don’t keep pushing yourself. It’s probably more effective to give yourself some space to work out better solutions. This might involve asking for help, getting some training or just developing some coping strategies.
For others… offer help if you see someone struggling or let a manager or supervisor know that they may need some support. If they stop engaging in social activities or hobbies remind them of how important it is to have a life outside the university.
And ENJOY YOUR WEEKEND!
*Available to IOP members, I’m working with SUPA and the IOP on an event to promote the guide and resilience for researchers – Friday April 21st – Being a Resilient Researcher.