Pictured: Ivy Bourgeault, researcher and Telfer professor. Photo: Sarah Crookall
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Pilot study finds burnout, anxiety top mental health symptoms

As the U of O and part-time professors reach a tentative deal on a new contract, research from the university reports systemic inefficiencies may contribute to professors’ leaves of absence.

“All the mental health experiences that students are experiencing—academics are experiencing as well,” said researcher and Telfer School of Management professor, Ivy Bourgeault. “It’s particularly challenging in the very insecure world that is contract faculty.”

With $1.4 million in federal funding, the U of O will partner with 11 universities including Carleton and McGill, to assess the mental health symptoms facing professors and six other professions.

The research focuses on professors, teachers, dentists, midwives, nurses, physicians, and accountants. So far, anxiety and burnout is reported most often in all seven professions.

The pilot study, funded through a Partnership Development Grant, conducted 200 surveys across the country. It found 27 per cent of employees took a leave of absence, most often because of work overload or poor relations with employers.

Building on research on insomnia in education, Bourgeault says unseen mental health symptoms aren’t always reported in what are sometimes considered good jobs like academia.

“Because of that privilege we may not look at the invisible stressors that are happening,” she said.

The five-year study is asking employees why they take a leave of absence, how they return to work, and which factors stop them from taking a leave of absence when they can.

Bourgeault says workers, especially professors who experience anxiety lecturing, often don’t return after a leave.

“It becomes very difficult for faculty to come back without teaching,” she said. “Sometimes It can be interpreted, whether appropriately or inappropriately, that not wanting to teach … is a way to get out of tasks that are not highly valued.”

Bourgeault added that teaching, administrative work, and student mentoring are typically not valued as much as research in academia. She added that unpaid working hours can be especially stressing for part-time faculty.

At the same time, in 2017–18 the number of faculty employed as full-time professors increased by 1.4 per cent from 2016–17. According to Statistics Canada, about 230 more professors are signed-on full-time.

The data from Statistics Canada notes, “this may be due to a number of factors such as the movement of the baby boom generation through the workforce, as well as the end of mandatory retirement across Canada.”

In the 2017-18 academic year, full-time professors at the U of O were paid $177,350 on average, with assistant professors pulling in $116,100.

In Bourgeault’s pilot study, pay ranked as the lowest mental health factor in all seven professions.

Professors reported inefficiencies from poor flexibility in accommodation, long-term needs, and systemic barriers. Bourgeault says not having access to internal research funds, conducting research, and attending meetings can also contribute to high stress for professors.

Referencing creative solutions in sectors like government, Bourgeault says gender diversity in mental health programs can be a helpful way to address these stressors.

Instead of losing the skills of workers who leave their profession, Ivy said she envisions work environments maintain the skills employees acquired over time. “Maybe there are other ways that we could accommodate—to pick up skills of individuals,” she said.

The Canadian Community Health Survey, commissioned by Statistics Canada, will occur within the five-year period, and take a closer look at gender.

Drawing on academics’ inability to move for graduate studies and harassment, Bourgeault added that the pilot study found gendered stress differences among teachers.

“Women are less likely to be invited to conferences, they are less likely to get funding to go to conferences, and therefore their progress through their career is much more limited,” she said.

“There was greater differences when we looked not at gender of the professional, but at gender of the profession,” she said.

Bourgeault referenced management and a culture of presenteeism as factors contributing to leaves of absence.

“We refer to the word ‘presenteeism’ but it really doesn’t capture the visceral nature of what that means—the inability to take a leave, having to go to work when you are unwell,” she said.Bourgeault says full results of the pilot study are expected this fall, and that students and professors are encouraged to get involved.

“It’s really important that if you’re experiencing stress at work that you don’t just individualize it—that, yes, we want to empower people to take control over their stress where they can, but also to acknowledge where it is a work structure,” she said.