The pandemic has intensified many stress points for faculty and academic librarians while highlighting existing issues with how academic work is structured. This has left many feeling that they must choose between productivity and their own mental health.

Mental health in academia has never been so tenuous. The pandemic and rapid shift to remote teaching exacerbated the impacts of pre-existing heavy workloads and increasing expectations around academic productivity. Taken together, these have negatively affected the mental health of university faculty. This problem did not start with the pandemic: faculty and their unions have been raising concerns about the impact of working conditions on faculty members’ mental health well before this time.

In 2018, our Healthy Professional Worker Partnership brought together an interdisciplinary team of researchers and community partners from across Canada to examine the relationship among mental health, leaves of absence, and return to work. We studied the impacts across seven professions, including university faculty. At the outset, our intent was to shift our focus from a worker’s individual experiences of stressful occupational circumstances and coping strategies to the conditions of work, particularly within the gendered organization of familial and university care work and the broader context of the neoliberal academy. Interrupted by the pandemic, we gathered data from several sources—surveys and interviews with faculty and key stakeholders—within the context of a review of the existing literature.

Our emerging findings suggest that we all need to be concerned.

The state of mental health in academia

The research literature we gathered reveals that concerns about mental ill-health in academia are not new. Two decades ago, Gail Kinman reviewed the research on academic stressors and strains and pointed out that faculty members in many countries consistently report high levels of stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues. This has been corroborated with more recent studies from around the globe. A 2003 Australian study found that mental illness in academic staff was three to four times higher than that of the general population. A 2010 pan-Canadian study of academics reported that 24 per cent of their sample had a substantial level of psychological distress. A 2017 RAND Europe report stated that 37 per cent of academic staff indicated a mental health disorder. That same year, a British study found that 43 per cent of the academics they sampled had symptoms of a mild mental disorder, the most prevalent of which were depression, anxiety and burnout. In our survey, almost two-thirds of academics reported experiencing mental health issues, such as anxiety, psychological distress, depression, and burnout, at some point in their career.

Almost two-thirds of academics reported experiencing mental health issues, such as anxiety, psychological distress, depression, and burnout, at some point in their career.

In contrast to those in tenured or tenure-track positions, those working as contract faculty experience mental ill-health due to their job insecurity, compounded by uncertain or unfair hiring practices, poor financial compensation, and a marginalized status in the academic community. A recent Canadian Association of University Teachers report found that precarious work is a major source of stress for contract faculty and that women and racialized academic staff were more likely to report high levels of stress.

Relationship to workload, organization of work, and other systemic factors

The organization of academic work presents a paradox. Autonomy is one of the most enticing features of being an academic. We have freedom to choose the work we want to do and the topics we research. However, the university is what some have called a greedy organizationUniversities can be seen as systemically taking advantage of the vocational commitment and professional integrity of academics, increasingly requiring them to build more impressive CVs to secure tenure, promotion, and research funding—even in the face of budget restraints.

Our survey respondents overwhelmingly cited heavy workloads as being a key source of work-related stress. In the pandemic, workloads have further intensified with the shift to online teaching and the need to maintain research and service commitments remotely. Indeed, over one-third of our respondents noted digital stress as a critical concern.

The publish or perish adage is not new. However, faculty members are increasingly expected to publish more, specifically in “high impact” journals, and to compete for and win larger and larger grants. In addition to high research productivity, academics are frequently expected to engage in community partnerships and knowledge exchange, often through increased use of social media or writing for the broader public. This work takes time and energy but is not weighted heavily in tenure and promotion decisions nor in reviews of productivity for research grants.

A concern related to workload noted by study participants was the anxiety they experience due, in part, to being under constant evaluation. Academics are evaluated by their students, peers, universities, granting agencies, and sometimes in the press and court of public opinion. We know from other research that the use of audit and ranking systems in academia contributes to the ongoing sense of anxiety among academic workers.

The use of audit and ranking systems in academia contributes to the ongoing sense of anxiety among academic workers.

Gender and career stage matter

Work-related pressures start early for academics, and it is during the process of career establishment when they report growing stress levels. Research shows that for someone to get a tenure-track job, successful applicants require a greater number of “quality” publications now than in the past. These heavy workloads and a culture that champions working long hours result in stress-induced poor mental health among academics. It may be expected that by mid-career the pressure would let up, but less productive mid-career academics can be shamed or labelled as “deadwood,” with productivity defined almost exclusively in terms of publications and grants. Maintaining high productivity levels in academia has been shown to be particularly challenging for those with underlying mental health issues.

Given that academic work environments are gendered, experiences of mental health in the workplace are also gendered, with women academics identifying work-life balance, familial care work, and emotional labour as significant factors affecting their mental health.

Our survey revealed gender differences similar to a 2008 study of occupational stress experienced by academics. In both studies women reported significant stress from having to manage work, a disproportionate responsibility for family care, a non-supportive organizational environment, and a feeling of being undervalued. Research also reveals that longer working hours are associated with work-life conflict for women faculty but not for men.

Gender inequity has a significant impact on the mental health of women in higher education, exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has exposed long-standing inequities among faculty, with women academics disproportionately affected by the brunt of additional care and housework. Many women academics have lost ground, unable to write and conduct research. Some universities responded to faculty and union concerns with extended deadlines for tenure and promotion; however, these kinds of policy changes and accommodations can have inadvertent negative impacts on women faculty. In a study examining the impact of supposedly gender-neutral family-friendly “stop the clock” tenure policies, researchers found that these substantially reduced tenure rates among women and increased rates among men. This finding points to the unintended impact of policies that do not take into account the longer-term impacts of caregiving.

The pandemic has exposed long-standing inequities among faculty.

Notably, much of the research only examines gender from a binary perspective. Our research is inclusive of diverse gender identities and is only starting to uncover these heretofore-invisible dynamics.

The invisibility and individualization of the problem

The mental health dialogue within academia is marred by significant stigma, which has provoked considerable debate about whether one should disclose their mental health issues or disability in the academy. Indeed, even among those respondents to our survey that identified mental health concerns, less than a quarter opted to take a leave of absence. This was due, in part, to potential stigma, but also because they did not want to further burden their colleagues with extra teaching and student supervision. This results in a high level of presenteeism during which people are working while ill. It may be that disclosing mental health struggles is easier after establishment in one’s field, similar to disclosing disabilities.

The mental health dialogue within academia is marred by significant stigma.

Our research shows that mental health resources in universities are difficult for academics to find. If a faculty member wants to take a leave for mental health reasons, very few know the process for taking a leave or even who to contact. This corroborates research revealing that university workplaces lack institutional policy supporting faculty wellness more broadly.

Universities are beginning to take action on students’ mental health, in part through the endorsement of the Okanagan Charter. Ironically, these initiatives can increase expectations that faculty members are able to help students dealing with mental ill-health. Some universities have mental health initiatives for staff and faculty, encouraging them to take lunch and yoga breaks. These tend to focus on individual coping behaviours and fail to address underlying systemic and organizational issues.

Academic flexibility in terms of their working hours and ability to work remotely when not teaching may provide individuals with a mechanism for managing their mental health—though not always well. Because of the autonomy our positions afford, faculty can hide their mental ill-health by working from home or waiting until a sabbatical to seek relief. Such individualized strategies are reinforced by neoliberal systems of productivity surveillance. This flexibility, combined with university mental health programs that focus on individual resiliency, may serve to keep mental health issues hidden, exacerbating what Rosalind Gill calls the “hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia.”

Taking more direct action

Many, including the authors of The Slow Professor Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, have called for a change in how academic work is done. They reject the individualized responses to productivity pressures, such as developing better time management habits. Instead, they call on academics to question what productivity means. Observations of how the academic system negatively affects our well-being and calls for more reflection have largely been ignored and, in some cases, even derided.

We need to develop policies and collective agreement language that mitigate conditions for overwork in tenure and promotion criteria, that improve the job security and the status of our contract faculty, and that address uneven impacts of care work on academic productivity. As a collective, we need to believe that we are more than our CVs.

We need to develop policies and collective agreement language that mitigate conditions for overwork.

We concur with the RAND Europe report that urges institutions to work more closely with government regulators on health and safety in the workplace in order to address risks to the psychological health and safety of academic staff. In Canada, we have played a leadership role internationally with the development of a National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. But, even when adopted, these guidelines are voluntary, enabling organizations to continue with the status quo. As long as the reward structures in academia are oriented in the neoliberal direction, there will likely be no behaviour change among academics. It is time for academic leadership to reconsider what the current neoliberal model of academia does to all of us, even those of us who are most successful under this model.

As we consider how the academic system affects each of us, we leave you with the compelling words of one of our participants: “My mental health has been so detrimentally affected by my career that I don’t know how I’m going to make it to the end of my career. I don’t know how I’m going to survive that long…it’s hard to survive in such a competitive environment. The anxiety over that is huge…I have a really uncomfortable time at work despite the fact that I’m really successful in what I do. My publications are fine. I’m successful, but the cost is just too high.”

Ivy Bourgeault is a Professor in the School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies at the University of Ottawa and the University Research Chair in Gender, Diversity and the Professions. Janet Mantler is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Carleton University. Nicole Power is a Professor in the Department of Sociology at Memorial University. The authors would like to acknowledge Yvonne James for her the contributions to the literature review upon which some parts of this commentary are based.