Psycho-social stress? Not among our professors, apparently

By Joern Fischer

A few months back, Leuphana University instigated an assessment of “psycho-social stress” affecting its staff. Online questionnaires were sent to professors, other scientific staff and (presumably) administrators. Results were shared, and now group interviews were announced to dig more deeply into existing problems and devise solutions for these problems.

I thought it was quite laudable of our institution to investigate such factors, and so when an open invitation came to participate in a group interview with other professors, I checked whether I would be available at the time. My diary was still open, and so I registered, with the disclaimer “if there are still places available”. A message came back that I was in fact the first to register — so, all seemed good.

Funnily enough, a few days ago, a second message reached me saying the exercise was cancelled because I was in fact the only professor at the entire university who showed an interest in participating. And that’s what’s prompted this blog post …. what’s going on here?

Three alternative explanations come to mind. The first is that professors are so happy and balanced here that there is simply no need for such exercises. Everybody’s mental health is great, social processes are functioning, and so there is no need to talk about it, let alone further improve things.

The second explanation might be that professors were, generally, too busy for such an exercise. They might agree on the importance of investigating mental and emotional well-being in the workplace, but the invitation to them sounded like yet another annoying workshop, with lots of talking and no change anyway. Better then to focus on one’s direct environment and ignore this kind of lip service exercise run by the central administration.

And finally, the third explanation is that professors are so fragmented in their inner and outer selves that many are not even in a position to actively consider the possible value of reflecting on psycho-social processes.

Most likely, it’s different answers for different people; and I should not judge which of the three explanations (or perhaps others that I have not considered) dominates. But the outcome, to me, is a missed opportunity to improve the workplace.


13 thoughts on “Psycho-social stress? Not among our professors, apparently

  1. Perhaps this is a free riding problem? Each Prof assumes that some other profs will spend their time disusing/fixing the problems (assuming such problems are unives(ity)al) and they personally don’t attend hoping to gain the benefits of the process without any of the costs.

  2. What about fear to reveal oneself? It’s not exactly workplace culture in academia to share with others what’s going on, especially if it isn’t entirely positive, “can-do”, puts oneself in the best light and is supportive for one’s career. Or am I just not aware that professors do do that among themselves? All I know is that among WiMis, it’s dangerous to be honest about one’s psycho-social wellbeing in the workplace if you hope to advance.

  3. Thanks for another stimulating post! I wanted to share that at my institution (UC Berkeley), we had a wellbeing survey of graduate students in 2014, the same year as a campus climate survey (as in social climate). The graduate student survey looked at more variables than psycho-social stressors, but I found the results really fascinating. Of 790 graduate students that replied:

    “About 47% of PhD students and 37% of
    Master’s and Professional students
    score as depressed. Students in the Arts
    & Humanities fare poorly on several
    indicators and 64% score as depressed.”

    I bring this up because on the one hand perhaps all of your hypotheses are true about why faculty didn’t show up (I doubt #1 though!), but when I think about my own institution, I really stumble at these findings and have also wondered at questions that your institute sought to answer at the faculty level–What is faculty well-being–does it look like the graduate student well-being? If not, why would the gap between professor’s well being and graduate student well being be so dramatically different? There are some obvious potential answers there, but is that even acceptable? ‘Well-being’ shouldn’t be hierarchical or merit-based.

    Mentors and advisors are not psychologists, even if they may help students avoid such high levels of unwell-being. So it begs the question where the cost and energy of helping these students will come from, and how this will impact the university system as a whole (and I mean ‘costs’ in a broader sense but economic is of course a part of it). It also suggests that if faculty have anywhere near similar rates of scoring ‘depressed’ that the graduate student survey revealed, then there’s likely a significantly reduced capacity of general well-being (at least on Berkeley’s campus)! I have a hard time assessing this beyond anecdotal knowledge of student experiences – because in part, as an analogy to Leonie’s comment, the answer to “how’s it going” is always “good.”

  4. Hi Joern
    Here at the Australian National University they have just done a much promoted university-wide staff engagement survey and got very little response – which says a lot about how engaged staff are. I suspect the reason lies in your third explanation. Not the busyness so much as the lack of belief the survey will change anything. It reflects a loss of social capital (trust) after years of efficiency drives and automation, and leads to poor feedbacks and diminished resilience.

  5. Dear Joern!
    I agree we all make personal choices, and generally think that our society does not reflect sufficiently on being happy to be able to help others to get happy.
    I practise meditation on a daily basis, and try to make sure to make 15-30 minutes of Yoga every evening, so one of the comments is right (!). Also, I consider it important to read about these issues, spanning across fairly standard books on management well into the realms of emotional intelligence. While I am not sure if I am competent to evaluate any of the reasons you suggested, for me personally I decided that I do not want to judge on these issues. I can understand that it may be helpful to raise awareness, yet I believe that judging others does not get us closer to a solution. I wonder whether we need to find other ways to reach people.

    • Thanks for your comment. You’re right of course that it’s not for us to judge — hence my statement concluding the post that it’s not for me to judge (i.e., we agree). But to analyse and explore reasons is not to judge; and if we want to reach people, it is worthwhile to think about why this particular exercise quite evidently did not reach them. Cheers — J.

  6. I just spoke to you in person on this, but its playing on my mind a bit. I’m really shocked by comments such as those from Jess and Leonie, but I am also not surprised. My own experiences and observations tell me that mental health is a topic that needs to be addressed in university settings, but that it is really a tricky topic to engage with – probably for all the reasons you mention, and those that your commenters give, and more. I think that the broader system will need to change, but perhaps the way to bring about this change needs to be more bottom-up; maybe rather than university-wide committees, we need to support team leaders and mentors so that they can foster good mental health practices in their own teams.

    • “, we need to support team leaders and mentors so that they can foster good mental health practices in their own teams.” that is an interesting idea,

    • Sorry I will try and complete my thought. I guess one concern I have is that we are not that sort of doctor, and I am not sure how comfortable, or competent I would be at addressing other peoples’ mental health issues at work. In the same way as I would be uncomfortable treating my colleagues physical ailments.

      Clearly there is some serious stigma attached to discussing mental health and that needs to be addressed, but once people are comfortable discussing such issues at work I still think there need to be top down structures and professional support to ensure such discussions are beneficial.

  7. I was diagnosed with clinical depression during the course of my field research and brought this up with my supervisors and tutors (also here in Germany). Of course, they expressed sympathy when I told them about it, but I think they also don’t know how to deal with it. That was the first and last time we talked about my depression. Supervisors and tutors aren’t medical doctors, but one need not be a psychiatrist to learn how to support someone who is clinically depressed. Society, in general, has a long way to go with coming to terms with mental illness but as academics well-versed in the language of research and the profession more or less has a higher rate of depression (according to this:, I think we can actively look for ways to maintain mental well-being or support colleagues suffering mental health problems.

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