Working life or living to work? How does the ‘workaholic’ mentality disrupt science… and scientists?

 
Recently, Science published a lil “Working Life” piece aimed at providing career advice. In it, the author just happened to mention that, in order to get ahead as an early career scientist, he worked 16-17 hour days.

Partially in response to this article, Bryan Gaensler wrote “Workaholism isn’t a valid requirement for advancing in science”.

We’ve talked about work-life balance before in several of our conversations here in the Diversity Journal Club, especially as it pertains to mental health. Moreover, as Dr. Gaensler points out, working the 16-17 hour shift means you likely have someone helping you out – and this is likely falling on a female partner. Clearly, there are significant implications for women in this workaholic mindset.

 
But this got us thinking beyond how women end up with more household responsibilities. First, this narrative assumes that people are partnered and, often, have kids. Not all of us fit this mold – we may not be partnered (or even want to be) and we may not have kids (or even want them). We may have other responsibilities outside these traditional assumptions – like caring for other family members. If we frame the discussion around who has to take out the trash and change the diapers, we ignore all the other scientists out there who always have to take out the trash, who have to check on Mom. We devalue their experiences and responsibilities. Oh you don’t have kids? Must be easy for you, then.

It’s even more than that. Here at the DiversityJC, we’ve talked about how social justice and diversity work can be ignored or undervalued, but also falls on minority groups themselves. If we already make such work an “extracurricular” with little attention or weight when it comes to your career track, how, then, do those who feel it is important or their responsibility to do this work add it in to the 16-17 hours they should be doing “real research”? Are responsibilities like teaching or communicating science de-emphasized because of a fixation on the idea that research is all that “counts”? Where do we put the time aside for this work, or do we assume those that do it aren’t going to be “serious scientists”?

How does this ever lead to a change in diversity within the sciences? Is there a way many possible work schedules/styles can be seen as productive in STEM?

Finally, this workaholic mentality also means we dismiss and diminish those outside activities we care about. They assume your work is your life. We don’t allow for you to just want some time to yourself. You have to have a reason – and one that fits the narrative – to not be putting in those long hours and late nights. Yet we are whole people, and many of us have much more in our lives that make us happy. How does this fit in to our conversations about mental health in the sciences?

 
For our next Diversity Journal Club, we’d like to use the Science advice column and Dr. Gaensler’s post to open up this discussion about the workaholic mentality in science. How does this mentality affect your work and life – what are the responsibilities and activities in your life that go undervalued as a result? What are the implications for science and the mental health of scientists?

And, finally, is this mentality necessary? Is it a myth? What can we do about it? Does the myth of the hard-working individual render invisible socio-cultural context for career success?

 
Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments, and “see” you on Monday 27 July at 2pm ET for our discussion under the #DiversityJC!

Emily, Ian, and Dr. PMS.

What is the mental toll of science? Guest recap by Ian Street.

#DiversityJC this week was about mental health in academia. For help on this topic, Ian Street was gracious enough to co-host. Ian has been outspoken about his own battles with depression in academia and science, and is an open and welcoming voice on social media on these topics. We were very happy to have him – and have him help out with the recap this week. Here are his thoughts on what was an insightful and importance conversation…


Why does mental health matter in STEM? We rely on our brains in STEM (and other creative/tournament style disciplines) and perhaps more importantly, we prize a good, well functioning mind to dive deeply into our fields of study. Mental illness is under-recognized, not talked about much, and certainly takes a toll on an academic’s productivity and life if not treated.

Major Depression (see Andrew Solomon’s Talk here if you’re not sure what depression is/feels like) ground me to a halt several years ago. I’m moving again, but it’s a long road to recovery. I don’t wish my experience on anyone, but the good news is that depression, anxiety, and many other mental health disorders are now treatable/manageable.

One of the themes that came up in our discussion was the mental health in academia specifically. The long hours, the culture of expectation of always working, just figuring it out and feeling like we can’t talk about our mental health while we’re always at work (and with depression, our own brains tell us to isolate ourselves– that keeps the depression going):

And how the culture (at least in the United States) prioritizes work over people and just how that can affect early career worker’s mindset about “succeeding” in academia:


A lot of us got into science as kids, before any work-life integration issues became apparent. Most of us still love science, but the structural issues in academia that seem to be exacerbated in recent years do take a toll on our minds and bodies. Working harder is not the answer. And things that start out as impostor syndrome, perfectionism, and burn-out that are problems, but manageable ones, can morph into full blown mental illness if left unaddressed.

There does seem to be a combination of work environment plus some traits like sensitivity, keen observation skills, and deep focus/obsessiveness can turn into a sense of weakness, anxiety, and excessive rumination.


One of the biggest things is a sense of not being alone in our experience. And several people said just that in the discussion. It is a really good first step to end the stigma and open up a safe space to talk about these things.

Asking for help is not weakness. And functioning with depression takes great strength. It’s like operating while carrying a huge rock on your back.

Faculty, staff, everyone needs to be made more aware of the resources that are available if you think you have a problem with your mental health, or you are concerned about a friend.

While structural and cultural changes will help, the discussion also brought up things individuals can do, besides seeking out counseling and more mindset changes like

And talked about making time for ourselves and things we enjoy beyond science. Perhaps things that have a shorter term payoff than research at the bench can have.

Not isolating ourselves, getting too wrapped up in our h-index score and all the other trappings of narrowly measured success, at least some of the time, is important as well:

The uncertainty of academia that is pervasive (and may be felt in other professions) may be the biggest factor of all contributing to the rising tide of mental health issues. That may not go away anytime soon.


Experimenting with what works to alleviate or better manage under the pressures of academia, careers, our lives and sharing that with friends or colleagues can foster a community and help drive change that needs to happen. It won’t be easy. At least we’re not alone, there is an ear out there to listen (I’ll listen! Direct Message me).


When I started to really manage depression better, I had to take my uber-skeptic (maybe cynical?) scientist hat off and found some ideas that really worked for me. None are easy, simple solutions, but I offer them here in short form in hopes they may help someone reading this:

Celebrate other’s successes, be kind to each other, be self-compassionate, adopt a growth mindset, practice gratitude, and dare greatly.


Ian Street is a postdoc in plant biology,a  science and postdoc life blogger, and twitterphile.

 

Thank you to Ian for helping out with #DiveristyJC this week, and thank you to everyone who joined us. Mental health is a major concern in STEM and academia (among other fields of course) so please keep the dialogue going – leave your thoughts,  questions, and resources in the comments!

Gone Mental: The next Diversity Journal Club

There’s been a trend in our most recent DiveristyJC discussions: mental health.

 

“If it’s too hot in here, get out of the kitchen.”

“You can’t expect to take weekends off.”

“Have you submitted that paper yet?”

 

There are many reasons we’re stressed out in STEM, but what is “normal” stress, and what is far beyond it? We all complain about deadlines, but when do we actually talk about the toll it all takes on our health? Moreover, we already stigmatize mental health concerns and mental illness in this country – now we place that in the competitive culture of academia.

 

It’s no surprise we rarely talk about mental health, rarely seek help for it.

 

For this next Diversity Journal Club, we will focus on the following two posts from The Gaurdian:

Dark thoughts: why mental illness is on the rise in academia

Mental health issues in academia: ‘stories are not cries of the privileged’

In addition to these, some further articles of interest:
Paying Graduate School’s Mental Toll
The Stressed-Out Postdoc
Get Help: How the myth of self-sufficiency fails PhD students with mental illness

And the entire Guardian series, Mental health: A university crisis

 
Increasingly, we are talking about mental health in STEM careers and academia. Let’s use the Diversity JC space to do so here – but let’s also focus on how these mental health concerns intersects with diversity, as it assuredly does.


Please join us on Monday 20 April at 2pm EST on twitter, under #DiversityJC. We will also have the fantastic Ian Streen (@IHStreet) to help co-moderate!

 

Emily K.


Doctor PM