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“Wellbeing” and “mental health” in academia: nomen est omen?

In current debates, the terms “mental health” and “wellbeing” are often used interchangeably and are not clearly defined. Katia Levecque and Anneleen Mortier from Ghent University discuss why universities would benefit from a thorough reflection on how wellbeing and mental health are explicitly and implicitly conceptualised.

World-class research asks for healthy and supportive work environments that allow researchers to flourish. The organisational benefits of high levels of wellbeing and good mental health in employees are well-known: better performance, less turnover, less absenteeism, less presenteeism and more organisational commitment. However, compared to the non-academic sector, universities are lagging far behind in terms of investments in the wellbeing and mental health of their doctoral researchers and academic staff. This lag is unfortunate as the European Union explicitly acknowledges that mental health is a key resource for the EU’s success as a knowledge-based society.

Is this due to a lack of need in academia? When exploring social media, the emerging picture suggests a pressing need: academics provide testimonies of stress, depressions, anxieties, addictions, burnout, suicidal ideation and suicides. According to some, the frame of “a mental health crisis in academia” is warranted.

As a reaction to the increasingly voiced concerns about wellbeing and mental health of academics on social and other media, more and more universities in Europe have put wellbeing on their policy radar, either as a totally new policy objective or as a policy objective in need of higher priority. In several universities, surveys and monitoring devices are set up, and prevention and action plans are developed or extended.

In the light of these recent developments, we call for some caution in the framing of “wellbeing” and “mental health” as these concepts refer to delicate and sensitive issues. When setting up programs, universities mostly use the framing of “wellbeing”. The terminology “mental health” is expressed far less, which might be related to the stigma and taboo surrounding it. Contrary to “mental health”, the use of a broad umbrella concept such as “wellbeing” has shown to ease the mobilisation of a critical mass of management support for initiating and adopting action programs. In addition, it might also ease the acceptance of action programs by those for whom they are developed. As categorising well-meant initiatives under the “wellbeing” umbrella has merits for its mobilising capacities, accurate reflections on term usage is in place. We’ll just initiate a few reflections.

First, in many European countries, the concept of wellbeing has no official definition. Across Europe, the conceptualisation of wellbeing differs. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work identified as many as 11 different terms in use to describe wellbeing at work. General wellbeing at work might cover physical and mental wellbeing, psychosocial issues and the working environment. At a very high level of generalisation, all conceptualisations of wellbeing refer to an individual’s positive evaluations of his or her life, as it includes positive emotion, engagement, satisfaction, and meaning. Such broad definitions enable the understanding of wellbeing, but offer no clear guidelines for research, policy or action.

Second, as for the concept of mental health, definitions vary depending on cultural differences, subjective assessments, and competing theories and paradigms. Depending on the definition, there is an assumption of a certain level of pathology. Differences in the level of pathology refer to differences in “normal” or “non-clinical” mental health status versus “abnormal”, “pathological” or “(sub-)clinical” ones. Depending on the conceptualisation, another terminology is used to indicate mental health: “distress”, “issues”, “problems”, “disorders”, “illness”, “disease”. One consequence of this lack of agreement on the conceptualisation of mental health, is that the same concept, for example “depression”, might refer to very different levels of pathology, ranging from a single, transient and normal depressed feeling, to a severe, chronic and psychiatrically diagnosed depressive disorder. Needless to say, this might lead to miscommunication, misunderstanding, the hollowing out of concepts and the downplaying of severe emotional pain and suffering as a simple feeling of sadness.

Third, within occupational wellbeing research, researchers have mostly studied job outcomes (e.g. job satisfaction, absenteeism) and health outcomes (e.g. depression, emotional exhaustion) independently. Most studies have focussed on the causes of the outcomes, not on the interrelatedness of the outcomes themselves. Many people assume (often implicitly) that job and health outcomes are highly correlated. For example, many people assume that high job satisfaction is highly and positively linked with general mental health. But existing empirical evidence shows that the correlation is not as strong as usually assumed. As a consequence of the assumption, some organisations wipe out the possibility of mental health problems in their work force, using the argument that everyone is happy with their jobs, as their satisfaction surveys show. Another consequence of some assumptions made about the interrelatedness of outcomes, is that well-meant action programs might succeed in triggering desired effects in one outcome, while simultaneously triggering undesired effects in another outcome. To illustrate: an initiative aimed at reducing absenteeism might be very effective in lowering absenteeism statistics but might simultaneously trigger higher levels of presenteeism in the organisation, especially when underlying problematic working conditions are not adequately addressed.

In sum, universities that aim at efficient and effective management programs that support doctoral researchers and academic staff to flourish, might benefit from thorough reflection on how wellbeing and mental health are explicitly and implicitly conceptualised within their organisation. On top of that and more importantly, they should reflect on the (potential) consequences of these conceptualisations in terms of individual vs organisational responsibility, and in terms of approach. When work stress is reformulated in terms of a pathology or disease, it will trigger a different approach than framed in terms of psychosocial stress. The first will bring clinical psychologists, psychiatrists and medical specialists to the front stage, the latter will bring in human resources managers, job coaches and organisational change managers. The framing of wellbeing and mental health at work is not at all innocent: the concepts are real in their consequences. Nomen est omen.

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All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA Council for Doctoral Education. If you would like to respond to this article by writing your own piece, please see The Doctoral Debate style guidelines and contact the CDE team to pitch your idea.

About the author

Katia Levecque is Assistant Professor of Industrial and Employment Relations at the Department of Personnel Management, Work and Organizational Psychology of Ghent University in Belgium. She is also Promotor of the Centre for Research and Development Monitoring in Flanders and heads the unit Human Resources in Research. Her main research interests are occupational wellbeing, organisational behaviour, career dynamics, work organisation and organisational policies, and industrial relations. In her work, special focus is on social inequality and diversity.

Anneleen Mortier is Senior Researcher at the Department of Personnel Management, Work and Organizational Psychology of Ghent University in Belgium. Within the Centre for Research and Development Monitoring, she coordinates research on Human Resources in Research. Her main research topics are wellbeing, performance and careers of graduate students and doctorate holders. A special focus is currently directed towards entrepreneurship of researchers and the transition of PhD holders from academia to industry.

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