Wellbeing in Academia: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?

wellbeing in academia

Dear put-upon researchers,
We know that the academic world can be an intense one. Pressure to be on your best form at all times, constantly looming deadlines, and free time that gets chewed up by extra work – these are just a few of the demands you face in pursuit of your passion. That’s why we’ve chosen today’s article to talk about wellbeing. It’s a magic word for a magic concept, and one that, as researchers, we often overlook. In the sequel to this piece, we’ll be offering all sorts of advice on how to nourish your wellbeing, but first, we want to get to the heart of the matter by asking ‘What is wellbeing, and what threats do we face to it in academia?’


What is Wellbeing?

Wellbeing, to follow the simple logic of the words in front of us, is the condition of feeling well – but this is so much more than feeling well on a purely physical level. It is, in fact, both mental and physical, as well as, critically, emotional to boot. It means feeling good about who we are, what we do, and the course we’re taking in life. Oxford defines wellbeing as ‘the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy’, and we think at its truest level it involves all three of these things, making up a balance of feelings that allows us to be both content and successful.


Why does It Matter in Academia?


Naturally, one of the biggest determinants of wellbeing in our lives is our work (or indeed our studies). Take a moment to think about it – as researchers, we spend most of our days involved in a particular task, whether that’s working in lab, formulating equations, or deciphering ancient texts. Often, we do this in the same place and with the same group of people around us.
All of these elements, especially in combination, can have a profound effect on our wellbeing. If they are flowing together harmoniously, then very well! But if one thing (even something seemingly small) is knocked out of balance then the consequences can be profound, eventually determining whether we feel good or bad about what we’re doing. And in the feverish intensity of the academic world, where our work often forms a significant part of our personality, these details have the power to make or break our wellbeing.


What Threats Exist to Our Wellbeing in Academia?


We’ve decided to split up academic threats to our wellbeing into four categories – professional, mental, physical and emotional – although in reality, you’ll notice that they often overlap and intermingle. As you’ll see, the right (or wrong) kind of threat could easily span all four.


1. Professional


We start with professional threats, which we define as the very visible, practical demands put upon us in the world of research.

How many hours do we work?

How many hours should we actually be working?

Has a colleague asked us to perform a duty that we do not adequately understand?

Has a senior academic made a request of us that would cut deeply into our free time?

A significant issue for many junior academics is a pervasive sense that they should be saying ‘yes’ to everything, as this is the only way to guarantee a smooth ascent up the ladder of professional research. But when what first appears to be a simple workplace request represents, in reality, a serious imposition on our time or integrity, then it can become a threat to our wellbeing. One PhD student we spoke to, who prefers to remain anonymous, summarises the issue:

“When I come home on a Friday my weekend should begin, but on Saturday morning there are work messages waiting for me. I feel like I don’t have a choice – I have to reply to them.”


2. Mental


There is a limit to the amount of information or number of tasks the human mind can handle at any given moment (although you may find that supposition tested during your PhD). Mental threats – the sheer volume of what we have to do – can overload our minds, wearing them worryingly thin and impairing our ability to concentrate on our work. In fact, one of the likeliest outcomes of information overload is a nosedive in the quality of what we’re doing.

And there’s another unfortunate consequence to all of these mental impositions, as they can have the deeply unpleasant effect of encroaching on our private lives. The extra time needed for our minds to absorb and organize so much information is likely to spill out over the bounds of our designated research hours. Relationships with friends and family, time for hobbies and personal pursuits, even simply time to relax – all three can take a hit.


3. Physical


This one might surprise you, but persistent research can come with an array of threats to your physical wellbeing. Hunched over a computer all day? It would be easy to dismiss the suggestion as ridiculous, but consider it – our bodies were not designed to sit in one place all day, nor were our eyes designed to stare at screens without a break. Our posture can take a beating from this daily routine, which can in turn diminish the broader quality of our lives. Headaches and blurred vision are also a common consequence of too much screentime. Our eyesight can suffer and so too can the clarity of our thoughts.


4. Emotional


Emotional threats to our wellbeing are perhaps the hardest to define, as they can often be intensely personal. Maybe a colleague has made comments to you about your research which feel more like a personal attack than constructive criticism. Maybe someone has brought into question the way you choose to dress on campus (yes, it does happen – check out interview with Duncan Yellowlees 🎧 for more on the ‘contentious’ colour green). Or, just maybe, you get the nagging feeling that you’re the victim of favouritism in your department. The unseen nature of emotional threats is what makes them so pernicious, as we can end up trying to sweep them aside or bottle them up instead of confidently addressing them. This, of course, is likely to lead to further issues down the line.


Final Thoughts


So, researchers, what can we do with all of this information? It’s one thing to be able to identify these threats, but quite another to know what do about them. That’s why in part 2 of this piece, we’ll be running you through a variety of potential solutions, as well as giving practical advice and suggesting what steps you can take next.

In the meantime, we want to know what you think. How do you feel about your academic wellbeing? Is it healthy or in a bad shape? And do you recognise any of the threats we’ve outlined above?

Join the conversation and, as always, keep asking questions.

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