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The health of those who study health

Academic life can be hard, even for those who have reached the hallowed ground of the tenure track. Anecdotally, scientists know that the extreme pressure to publish and the exceptionally competitive funding environment can create intense stress and cripple morale—but there is little actual data about how faculty members are faring, physically and mentally. In particular, “it seems so ironic to me that biomedical scientists, the people who study the health of everybody else as their profession, have barely had their own health studied,” says Warren Holleman, director of the Faculty Health & Well-Being Program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Holleman hopes to change that. About 5 years ago, he joined the MD Anderson faculty to take the helm of the program, which was created in 2001 after a faculty member died by suicide. Soon after joining, Holleman interviewed 19 of his science department chairs to find out what they thought about their faculties’ morale levels. The answer was published in a column in 2013: Faculty members were not doing well. Since then, Holleman has tried to expand his work by collaborating with scientific professional societies to conduct larger scale studies of faculty morale, but the three societies he approached all turned him down. “It seems to me that there might be a sense in which they really don’t want to know what the situation might be,” he says. “The only thing we could do was publish another paper commenting on our work, hoping to draw further attention to the seriousness of this issue.”

[I]t seems so ironic to me that biomedical scientists, the people who study the health of everybody else as their profession, have barely had their own health studied.

—Warren Holleman

The result is a commentary article in the May 2015 issue of the journal Academic Medicine, where Holleman and two colleagues present MD Anderson as a case study illustrative of a broader national trend and encourage other institutions to address what the authors identify as the faculty morale problem. According to the article, the MD Anderson department chair interviews revealed “that morale has plummeted in the past five years” and identified “funding challenges, bureaucratic inefficiencies, and faculty-administration conflict as the main sources of stress.”  Moreover, “[s]everal indicators suggest that our faculty’s problems … are not limited to our institution but are part and parcel of a national trend.”

Warren Holleman

Warren Holleman

Credit: The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

These are big, systemic issues that go beyond the scope of what can be solved by a single person, program, or article. Nonetheless, the paper provides some recommendations for steps institutions can take to alleviate some of the pressures that lead to low morale. The authors write that institutions should “increase bridge funding for promising faculty who are struggling to fund their research”; “lower the percentage of salary that faculty must cover through grants”; “improve administrative support for the grant submission process”; and “increase the level of formal acknowledgement of research collaboration expressed in the coauthor and coinvestigator status, both in the annual faculty appraisals and in the criteria for promotion and tenure.” Such reforms go beyond the domain of Holleman’s program, but he is collaborating with MD Anderson’s Faculty Senate, among others, to try to implement some changes in these areas.

Meanwhile, some specific programs intended to help the faculty deal with the pressures of the job are already available at MD Anderson, mostly via Holleman’s program. “The problems that are causing the low morale are not ones that we can fix in any direct way, but I feel that our efforts can help indirectly” by promoting better health and well-being practices, he says. Some of these programs, which the paper describes, such as lectures, panel discussions, and workshops addressing “issues of burnout, resilience, and work–life balance,” may not stand out much from the typical activities you would expect on an academic campus. Others, though, might raise some eyebrows and perhaps some skepticism. Take, for example, “meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, Pilates, and mini-retreats” meant to provide “mind-body fitness training” and “stress-buster music programs, faculty art exhibitions, [and] karaoke” to encourage “creativity and emotional expression.”

“Some programs will help some people; others will help others,” Holleman says. The weekly yoga, tai chi, and meditation classes only get about five to 15 attendees—but based on what he hears from them, “those who come get a lot out of it.” And the yoga and tai chi classes are usually taught by MD Anderson staff members volunteering their time, so the institution isn’t investing significant resources to run them. More than 30 faculty members contributed to the most recent art show, which drew about 100 total attendees.

Galen Panger, a University of California, Berkeley, graduate student who conducted a study of graduate student well-being at his university, agrees with the authors’ multipronged approach. “If the authors only suggested meditation or therapy and didn't address the issues they believe to be at the root of the morale problems—funding, bureaucracy and fighting with administrators—then I think faculty would be justified in feeling a little insulted” by the implication that their problems could be solved by meditation or therapy alone, he wrote in an email to Science Careers. “But in this case, these stress mitigation strategies are presented as part of a bigger picture, which is key.”

Holleman also emphasizes that his program’s efforts can be impactful beyond the immediate participants. “Many [faculty members] do things outside of the work environment for their health, and I feel that [our programs] have an overall benefit of encouraging everybody to find what works for them. … A big part of what we do is being kind of a beacon for culture change in the area of work-life balance and good physical and mental health.” Panger adds that faculty members “are the center of gravity at a University, thus, their success and happiness impacts that of many other people, including their students.” 

Researchers—and their institutions—would all benefit from a shift toward a greater emphasis on  health and well-being, Holleman says. Studies show that “taking care of yourself”—which in most cases means taking at least a little bit of time away from work—“probably makes you more productive in the long run.” For faculty members who are having a hard time tearing themselves away from the lab because there’s always another grant proposal to write, paper to read, and experiment to plan, Holleman emphasizes that burning the candle at both ends is “just not sustainable. You’ll be less productive in the long run, as well as less happy and less healthy.”