Researching the researchers: psychological distress and psychosocial stressors according to career stage in mental health researchers

Nicole T.M. Hill, Eleanor Bailey, Ruth Benson, Grace Cully, Olivia J. Kirtley, Rosemary Purcell, Simon Rice, Jo Robinson, Courtney C. Walton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Background: Although there are many benefits associated with working in academia, this career path often involves structural and organisational stressors that can be detrimental to wellbeing and increase susceptibility to psychological distress and mental ill health. This exploratory study examines experiences of work-related psychosocial stressors, psychological distress, and mental health diagnoses among mental health researchers. Methods: This international cross-sectional study involved 207 mental health researchers who were post-graduate students or employed in research institutes or university settings. Work-related psychosocial stressors were measured by the Copenhagen Psychosocial Questionnaire III (COPSOQ III). Psychological distress was assessed using the Depression-Anxiety-Stress Scale-21 (DASS-21). Thoughts of suicide was assessed using an adaptation of the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9). History of mental health diagnoses was assessed through a custom questionnaire. Pearson’s chi-square test of independence was used to compare mental health diagnoses and suicidal ideation across career stages. The association between work-related psychosocial stressors and psychological distress was conducted using multivariate linear regression controlling for key demographic, employment-related and mental health factors. Results: Differences in ‘demands at work’ and the ‘work-life balance’ domain were lowest among support staff (p = 0.01). Overall, 13.4% of respondents met the threshold for severe psychological distress, which was significantly higher in students compared to participants from other career stages (p = 0.01). Among the subgroup of participants who responded to the question on mental health diagnoses and suicidal ideation (n = 152), 54% reported a life-time mental health diagnosis and 23.7% reported suicidal ideation since their academic career commencement. After controlling for key covariates, the association between the ‘interpersonal relations and leadership’ domain and psychological distress was attenuated by the mental health covariates included in model 3 (β = −0.23, p = 0.07). The association between the remaining work-related psychosocial stressors and psychological distress remained significant. Conclusions: Despite working in the same environment, research support staff report experiencing significantly less psychosocial stressors compared to postgraduate students, early-middle career researchers and senior researchers. Future research that targets key modifiable stressors associated with psychological distress including work organization and job content, and work-life balance could improve the overall mental health and wellbeing of mental health researchers.

Original languageEnglish
Article number19
JournalBMC Psychology
Volume10
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2022

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