For more than a year, scientists and health care workers have been working around the clock to prevent people from dying from COVID-19. Pressed to get results as soon as possible, the line between work and leisure has been blurred for many.
“I feel like I’m constantly tired and running the longest marathon of my life, but I just have to keep going,” said Krutika Kuppalli, assistant professor in the Infectious Diseases Department at the Medical University of South Carolina. “Every time I feel like we have a reprieve, something comes around the corner.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) highlighted burnout in health workers due to increased demand for health systems in 2019, long before the pandemic broke out. It does not classify burnout as a disease, but as a “professional phenomenon”.
In 2019, the WHO took a more comprehensive look at a problem that is already marginalizing workers in countries from Germany to India. It redefined burnout as a syndrome “resulting from chronic stress in the workplace that has not been successfully managed”. It is about feelings of exhaustion, mental distancing from the workplace, negative or cynical feelings towards work and reduced professional performance.
From bullying and overtime to pressure and competition, there are a whole range of systemic issues that affect researchers in academia that can lead to burnout, said Zoë Ayres, a UK-based analytical scientist and mental health attorney. The fact that these issues are not discussed also plays a role, she said.
Medical researchers have been working overtime for more than a year, and the exhaustion and pressure have taken its toll on some.
During the pandemic, scientists are feeling the pressure much more than they were before. A US poll of more than 1,100 university professors found that 69% of respondents felt stressed in 2020 versus 32% in 2019, 35% angry versus 12% in 2019, and 68% of respondents versus 32% last year.
More than half of those surveyed had given serious thought to either changing jobs and leaving college or taking early retirement.
“There are moments when I really feel about the pandemic and just want to get away from research, but everyone has to feel that way, right?” Zoe Hyde, an epidemiologist at the University of Western Australia, said.
Amy Greer, Associate Professor in the Department of Population Medicine at the University of Guelph in Canada, has not only put the work of her research team online, but also the care of her young family.
“You work a combination of things all day and then you put your kids to bed at night and then you work more because the pace at which science is moving requires you to be able to keep track of things to keep, ”Greer said.
“We rely heavily on each other”
Even when there is a lack of institutional support, some scholars do their best to support one another.
“I don’t think I know of a single person involved in pandemic research and response who isn’t overworked. And that’s in solidarity,” said Maimuna Majumder, a junior faculty member in the Computational Health Informatics Program at Boston Children’s Hospital and at Harvard Medical School. “We rely on one another a lot and that helps, especially given the relentless feeling that there is always more to do than any of us – healthy – can do.”
Hyde has found support from an online community of scientists working on COVID. It is a space where scientists can talk to each other about their feelings and let their frustration flow. “I think that has been very helpful to all of us,” said Hyde.
Working through the heartache
While scientists work overtime to save lives, some deal with the loss of loved ones.
“So many people are in constant grief over the pandemic,” said Majumder, “and some of the communities I belong to – health workers, BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color, the ed.], First-generation Americans, and so on – have been hit particularly hard by a seemingly endless stream of sickness and death. “
Just as the US seemed to be getting the pandemic under control, India began its battle against a deadly second wave fueled by a new variant.
Kuppalli from the Medical University of South Carolina has a family in India who has COVID. While keeping her job and commitments in the US, she has also tried to help friends and family in India which has been difficult due to the time difference.
“It was emotionally very exhausting and exhausting,” said Kuppalli.
“Academics tend to see science and its research as their calling,” said Desiree Dickerson, clinical psychologist and academic mental health specialist based in Spain. “Your identity is closely related to what you do.”
Such is the case with Maria Sundaram, an infectious disease epidemiologist and postdoctoral fellow at ICES in Ontario, Canada. “I personally identify very much with the job of an epidemiologist,” said Sundaram.
As someone beginning her career, Sandaram wants to look back on the work she has done in 20 years and feel like she has done as much as possible.
“Sometimes it feels like a lot and sometimes it doesn’t feel like enough,” said Sundaram.
Dickerson said “micro-changes” can make a difference in someone’s day. This can be as easy as not taking a smartphone into the bedroom.
For Majumder it is to paint a portrait or to sit down with sheet music. “Although I have to admit that it is extremely difficult for me to do all of these things without feeling guilty about it,” she said.
A systemic problem
Short contracts, pressures to produce papers, and fierce competition for funding add to the stressful work in science.
A survey of more than 6,300 doctoral students published by the scientific journal Nature in 2019, found that 36% of respondents said they had sought help with anxiety or depression caused by their doctoral studies.
Mental health attorney Zoë Ayres said one of the biggest improvements would be for institutions to play a bigger role in protecting people’s mental health.
They should “recognize at the institutional level that responsibility for mental health care lies not only with the individual but also with the institution to ensure a welcoming, safe work environment in which everyone can thrive,” Ayres said.
Academics may not be aware of other career paths or think that career change means failure, Dickerson said.
That can lead those who strive to stay in science to sacrifice other aspects of their lives in order to stay competitive.
“It also means they can be exploited very easily,” said Dickerson. “If you want it badly enough, you’ll work more hours, you’ll sacrifice more. Or someone who wants it more will take their place.”
Mental health dragonfly, a nonprofit advocating the prioritization of mental health in academia, has seen increasing demand for its mental health workshops.
In 2020 they conducted 25 workshops. This year they already have 34.
To date, the organization has held workshops in seven countries and reached more than 6,000 academics. Through their ambassador program, they train people to run workshops and help them reach more countries.
“We scientists are very passionate about our work, and I know from my own experience that burnout is very, very often like a badge of honor and something that we have to re-learn in order not to do it,” said Jelena Brasanac, one PhD student in neuroscience at the Charite University Clinic in Berlin and Chief Organizational Officer at Dragonfly Mental Health.
The goal of the organization is to bring about systemic change and reduce the stigma of mental health problems in science.
“We really have to work to bring about change, create awareness and education in the community and fight stigma,” said Brasanac, “because the most important thing for people who need help is to get help without being afraid of it Professional life and all other implications. “