New Survey Shows Researchers Face High Levels of Stress, Harassment at Work
Thu, October 21, 2021

New Survey Shows Researchers Face High Levels of Stress, Harassment at Work

A highly competitive and hostile environment is affecting scientists' quality of research as they fall victim to high levels of stress, a new study into research culture found / Photo by: Cathy Yeulet via 123RF


A highly competitive and hostile environment is affecting scientists' quality of research as they fall victim to high levels of stress, a new study into research culture found.

The survey findings, commissioned by biomedical research funder Wellcome Trust, highlights the troubling environment of research where a hierarchial system makes scientists feel powerless against their superiors.

Work pressure and harassment are just two of the things that affect how scientists work and the quality of their research, which results in wasted funds and loss of researchers in the field.


The Problems in the Research Community

The study consists of 4,267 participants surveyed about their experience working in research. Most of the respondents said they were proud to be working in such a field (84%), with common perceptions of the field being exciting, innovative, excellence, ambitious, and rewarding.

While two-thirds (62%) said they would recommend their department researchers, only half said they would encourage others to pursue a career in their sector (50%). A key issue to this finding is job insecurity. Only 29% of the respondents said they felt secure in their profession, a problem that 45% of the respondents said was among the reasons why they left the research community. 

Moreover, nearly a third of the respondents said they worked over 50 hours a week in an environment where they felt intense competition that creates "conditions ripe for aggressive, unkind behavior," The Guardian reports.

It adds that combinations of toxic behavior, discrimination, exploitation, and pressures of working life result in over a third feeling and seeking help for depression or anxiety. An average workday would have 70% of the scientists surveyed feeling stressed, the study found.

“Some of these results are frankly shocking,” Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, told The Guardian.

The self-selecting paints a bad picture of working in science and research, but Farrar said this image is consistent with the experiences of scientists conducted in the interview portion of the study.

“There have been enormous scientific advances in the past 40 years, and I think we’ve been seduced by that. We’ve been willing to sacrifice everything to achieve them without asking at what cost.”

A Troubling Culture

The pressure for excellence and the highly competitive nature of the research field has created a troubling and unsustainable environment for researchers. Current conditions in research are bad enough as it is, with 55% of the participants saying they had a negative impression of scientific working cultures.

As the situation worsens, the researchers said job security and being able to work independently and creatively are no longer enough to compensate for the negative aspects, online journal Nature says.

It adds that many researchers blame funders and institutes that use the number of publications and the impact factors of journals in which researchers publish as the indicators of quality research. These indicators are often emphasized in ways that "reduce morale an encourage researchers to game the system."

Nearly two-thirds of the respondents (61%) said they witnessed either bullying or harassment in the field while 43% reported being at the receiving end of such behaviors. Only one in three (37%) felt comfortable to speak up against these injustices as the remaining percentage doubt the possibility of seeing an appropriate action.

The survey also found that 40% don't know how to report incidences of misconduct in research while 37% don't have a clear understanding of what their workplace considered compromised research to be. 

"These findings suggested more could be done to ensure [a] clear policy is in place within workplaces and researchers are confident they will not be at risk of repercussions for speaking out," the researchers said.

Good management could protect scientists from pressures that affect the quality of their work, the respondents said, but such a practice was not always applied.

Changing the Research Environment

While nearly all respondents said wellbeing was fundamental to an effective working environment, only a few agreed that the initiatives in their workplaces were enough to meet their needs and can offer adequate wellbeing support.

Moreover, the high level of teamwork needed in research fails to hamper the feeling of loneliness and isolation from the profession. This feeling is particularly significant for those working in academia than those in industry.

Reshaping and creating a healthier working environment for researchers means addressing all of these concerns—which many scientists echo.

"A change in culture needs to occur at multiple levels," Deepti Gurdasani, a researcher at the University of London, told The Guardian.

"Some funders have perpetuated this culture by funding and supporting known bullies. Good management and mentoring are not valued and contribute little to career progression but stepping on others to move ahead ends up being rewarded."

For Tom Swift, a polymer chemist at the University of Bradford, most researchers feel that the absence of force for institutional change gives no option but to wait for the impending downfall of the system and piece it back together afterward.

A thriving field of research should be inclusive and have an engaging working environment and support free from the hierarchal system currently seen in the field today.

Achieving the full potential of research means having researchers from different backgrounds and shifting the focus from competition to collaboration, said Karen Stroobants, co-founder of MetisTalk, an organization that seeks to improve research culture. She added that incentive structures should also be put into place to promote integrity among scientists and open research practices.

A Global Occurrence

The findings of the survey are similar to other research that looks into working conditions, such as a 2019 study that surveyed thousands of Ph.D. students.

According to Nature, the 2019 survey found that half of the respondents were in a work culture that required long hours and even working through the night. Another study, also published last year, found that some 18% of the 9,000 employees surveyed experienced bullying at work.

Farrar said everyone must help in changing the toxic environment of research and sciences.

"The pressures of working in research must be recognized and acted upon by all, from funders, to leaders of research and to heads of universities and institutions," the Wellcome director said in a press release.