Saturday, 2 May 2020

Stepping back a level: stress management for academics in the pandemic


In my last blogpost, I suggested some things scientists could do if the pandemic prevented them conducting planned studies. Here I develop that theme. The bottom line is that in the current circumstances it may help to re-evaluate what you are doing by taking a step back to consider your broader goals. I'm prompted to write this by two tweets: one by a frustrated journal editor, who complained about the difficulty of finding reviewers right now, and the other by my colleague Laura Fortunato (@anthrolog) who tweeted about something I'd said recently.

We'd been in an online meeting of our steering group to discuss progress of Reproducible Research Oxford. We had had a clear planned timeline, including doing surveys to discover what activities/training people thought they needed, and what was already available at Oxford University. Laura noted that we were behind schedule. However, I thought it would be a mistake to go ahead and try to run any kind of survey at a time when most people were already overwhelmed by the adaptations to the pandemic, working from home, often with children present, and trying to adapt to deliver teaching online. In addition to the practical difficulties, many people were experiencing mood swings and periods of poor concentration. So this was most definitely not the time to ask them to fill in a survey. Instead, thanks to our splendid co-ordinator Malika Ihle, we had done things that were not planned, including setting up a range of online activities, focused on training and interaction, which had brought a large number of new people on board. So I just remarked: "We're not behind schedule: We have strategically adapted our activities to the current situation." Laura found this change in perspective helpful and tweeted about it, prompting me to explain my thoughts a bit more.

The economist John Kay in his book Obliquity drew a distinction between actions, goals and objectives, illustrated by the story of a visitor who encounters three stonemasons working on a cathedral. When asked what they are doing, the first person says "I am cutting this stone to shape"; the second says "I am building a great cathedral"; the third says "I am working for the glory of God". According to Kay, across a wide range of human activities, projects fail when they lose sight of the objectives and focus only on goals or actions. Of course, to function you need to translate your objectives, which are typically fairly abstract, into goals, and then specify actions to achieve those goals. But if you then get fixated on carrying out the actions, and fail to adapt when circumstances change, you are likely to come unstuck.

I'm seeing many people, both senior and junior, who are made miserable and frustrated by their current inability to carry on as before and do planned work. I can feel for the journal editor who sees her job as getting papers reviewed efficiently, only to find that she can't find reviewers. But the current blockage is not the fault of either the editor or the potential reviewer: we're up against external circumstances that none of us has experienced before. So we need to think in a more agile and flexible fashion.

The approach is going to vary hugely depending on one's personal circumstances. I'm one of the lucky ones. I can continue to do my job from home, my house is spacious with good wifi, I don't have to supervise home-schooling of children, and, to date, I and my loved ones have escaped the virus. Nevertheless, I find the situation strange and unsettling, my attention and emotions are up and down, and I'm much less efficient than usual. I'm aware that for many, many people it's much worse.

In this situation one needs to reconsider whether to attempt to carry on as usual, or whether to do something else. And here's where I think stepping back a level, from activities to goals, is helpful. For many postgraduates and early-career researchers it is particularly stressful not to be able to do a planned piece of work, because the clock is ticking and, in some cases, opportunities to gather data may be lost forever. It may be that you can find creative ways to do the work (e.g. in psychology, many studies are moving online, as I discussed in the previous blogpost), but before you do that, consider the question: why am I doing this study? There's usually two reasons: the more lofty one is genuine academic curiosity; the more prosaic is to take the next step in one's career. For postgraduates, gathering data is required for a higher degree. For postdocs, it is part of building a research portfolio. By considering the broader picture, you may realise that your planned actions are not the only way to move towards your goals – again, there are some suggestions in my last blogpost. Of course, you will mourn the sunk costs and missed opportunities, that's only natural. But the key is to recognise that there can be alternative ways to move forward. For some people, this may be impossible and you have to accept that the best way to hold things together is to press the pause button on your plans; this would be similar to a period of parental leave, and it's good to see at least some funders and institutions supporting this.

You can step further back and ask about broader objectives, why do I want this career? Is it to bring in an income, to create a sense of fulfilment, to prove to myself and others I can do it? Or even further back: what do I want out of life? To be happy, wealthy, famous, fulfilled? I've been watching TV interviews with those who survived COVID-19 and a common theme is that it makes them re-evaluate their life, often leading to a change in priorities. In particular, many people start to realise that family, friends and good health should be the highest priorities, and that working in a way that ignores these will ultimately lead to misery. In the UK, even before the pandemic, academic institutions have adopted different standards to managing staff, and the pandemic has exaggerated these. Some have tried to keep on with "business as usual" whereas others have been flexible and sympathetic to the varied impacts on their staff. You may come to the conclusion that if your employer ignores your circumstances and expects you to damage your physical and mental health to deliver on their agenda, you might be happier doing something else.

I don't want to come across as playing down the seriousness of the stresses that people are experiencing. There are no simple solutions, and the uncertain future makes planning difficult. But I hope it may help some people who are stuck in a dark place because they can't move forward to think about dropping immediate plans and taking a step back to consider if other options might allow them achieve the objectives that matter most to them.

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