How to manage stress of academic workers in a sustainable way


Institutional Communication Service

4 May 2020

The webinar "Stress resilience and well-being in academia" aimed at USI intermediate academic body of was held on 23 and 24 April. The workshop, which involved 25 participants between doctoral and post-doctoral students from all Faculties, was organised by the Equal Opportunities Service. Conducting the training was Dr. Desiree Dickerson, clinical psychologist with post-doctoral research experience in neuroscience and specialised in mental health and well-being of academic workers. Why this specialisation? What are the specific issues that may affect the mental health and well-being of researchers and professors?

Spanning the various disciplinary fields, academic careers are stimulating, rewarding and capable of making a positive impact on society. At the same time, however, it is a highly competitive sector that requires international mobility and a great deal of time and energy, often subtracted from social and family life. These aspects make young academics more prone to stress, feelings of anxiety and inadequacy which deteriorate their individual well-being and, in the long run, can damage the quality of their performance. These challenges can be aggravated by the pandemic we are experiencing, during which "normal" sources of stress at work are combined with concerns about one's own health and the health of family members, as well as uncertainty about the future.

How can we manage the stress associated with academic work in a sustainable way? According to Dickerson, we need to start from the basics, learning to recognise and deconstruct the mindsets that we all use in dealing with ourselves and with reality. When we are confronted with a source of stress (for example an interview with our supervisor), the thoughts we develop in response are not always objective and rational, as we believe, but filtered through subjective and often highly self-critical assumptions (for example, the belief that we are not up to the task). This influences our physical sensations (such as muscle tension or stomach ache) and our behaviour (giving up asking questions to the supervisor in order not to "reveal" our inadequacy). Recognising these negative mechanisms is the first step to reframe and overcome them. How? By giving ourselves the same advice and interpretations that we would give a friend in the same situation. With exercise, these good practices become automatic, just like when learning a new language.

Dickerson also suggests seven concrete actions to be implemented to maintain a good psychophysical balance during the pandemic period. 1) Set realistic goals, accepting possible drops in productivity due to difficulties in concentration and stress. (2) Taking care of ones health, exercising, eating and sleeping. (3) Recognising stress signals and keep them under control, for example with a few simple slow breathing exercises. (4) Even when working from home, maintaining a separation between work and rest time and space. (5) Using technology to stay in touch with family, friends and colleagues. (6) Be sympathetic towards yourself and others, given the greater difficulties we are experiencing at this time.