COVID scientists fight to avoid burnout | Science | In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 07.06.2021

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COVID scientists fight to avoid burnout

Health care workers and scientists are working overtime to curb the spread of COVID. But are their efforts costing them their own mental health?

Woman wearing a face mask looking unhappy

Burnout affects researchers in academia as well, particularly during the pandemic

For more than a year, scientists and health care workers have been working around the clock to stop people dying from COVID-19. Pressed to produce results as fast as possible, for many the line between work and leisure time has faded away.

"I feel like I am constantly tired and that I am running the longest marathon of my life, but I just have to keep going," said Krutika Kuppalli, an assistant professor in the division of infectious diseases at the Medical University of South Carolina. "Every time I feel like we may have a reprieve something hits us around the corner."

The World Health Organization (WHO) highlighted burnout in the health workforce due to increased demand on health care systems in 2019, long before the pandemic hit. It does not classify burnout as a medical condition, but as an "occupational phenomenon."

In 2019, the WHO took a broader view of a problem that is already pushing workers over the edge in countries from Germany to India. It redefined burnout as a syndrome "resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." It  involves feelings of exhaustion, feeling mentally distanced from one's job, negative or cynical feelings towards work, and reduced professional efficacy.

From bullying and working overtime to pressure and competition, there are a whole host of systemic issues affecting researchers in academia that could lead to burnout, said Zoë Ayres, a UK-based analytical scientist and mental health advocate. The fact people don't talk about these issues also plays a role, she said.

Exhausted doctor in a hospital

Researchers in the medical field have been working overtime for more than a year now, and the exhaustion and pressure have taken a toll on some.

During the pandemic, scientists have been feeling the pressure more than ever. A US survey of more than 1,100 university faculty found that in 2020, 69% of respondents felt stressed compared to 32% in 2019, 35% felt angry compared to 12% in 2019, and 68% felt fatigued compared to 32% last year.

More than half of respondents had seriously considered either changing careers and leaving higher education or retiring early.

"There are moments when I feel really, really over the pandemic and just want to walk away from research, but everyone must feel that way, right?" Zoë Hyde, an epidemiologist at the University of Western Australia, said.

On top of moving her research team's work online, Amy Greer, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Guelph in Canada, has been balancing looking after her young family.

"You kind of work all day doing a combination of things, and then you put your kids to bed at night and then you work more because the pace at which the science is moving requires you to kind of be able to stay on top of things," Greer said.

'We lean heavily on each other'

While institutional support might be lacking, some scientists are doing their best to support one another.

"I don't think I know a single person involved in pandemic research and response who isn't overworked. And there's something to be said for the solidarity in that," said Maimuna Majumder, a junior faculty member in the Computational Health Informatics Program at Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School. "We lean heavily on each other, and that helps, particularly given the incessant feeling that there's always more to do than what any of us are — healthily — capable of doing."

Hyde has found support through an online community of scientists working on COVID. It's a space where scientists can talk to each other about how they're feeling and vent their frustrations. "I think that's been really helpful for all of us," said Hyde.

COVID-19 Special: Frontline workers and researchers face burnout

Working through the heartbreak

While scientists are working overtime to save lives, some are dealing with the loss of loved ones.

"So many people are living in a constant state of bereavement because of the pandemic," said Majumder, "and some of the communities I belong to — health care workers, BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color, the ed.], first-gen Americans, et cetera — have been particularly hard-hit by a seemingly endless stream of sickness and death."

Just as the US seemed to be getting a handle on the pandemic, India started its battle against a deadly second wave spurred by a new variant.

Krutika Kuppalli from the Medical University of South Carolina has family in India who have been sick with COVID. While maintaining her job and commitments in the US, she has also been trying to help friends and family in India, which has been difficult with the time difference.

"It's been very emotionally draining and exhausting," Kuppalli said.

Setting boundaries

"Academics tend to feel that academia and their research is their calling," said Desiree Dickerson, a clinical psychologist and academic mental health specialist based in Spain. "Their identity is tightly intertwined with what they do."

This is the case for Maria Sundaram, an infectious disease epidemiologist and postdoctoral fellow at ICES in Ontario, Canada. "I personally really identify with the job of epidemiologists," said Sundaram.

As someone at the start of her career, Sundaram said she wants to be able to look back on the work she did in 20 years and feel she did as much as she could.

"It sometimes feels like a lot and sometimes it doesn't feel like enough," said Sundaram.

Dickerson said "micro-changes" can make all the difference to someone's day. This can be something as simple as not bringing a smartphone into the bedroom.

For Majumder, it's painting a portrait or sitting down with some sheet music. "Though I will admit that it's extremely difficult for me to do any of these things without feeling guilty about it," she said.

Tackling burnout

A systemic problem

Short contracts, pressure to produce papers and tight competition for funding all add to the stress of working in academia.

A survey of more than 6,300 PhD students published by the scientific journal Nature in 2019 found that 36% of respondents said they had sought help for anxiety or depression caused by their Ph.D. studies.

Mental health advocate Zoë Ayres said one of the biggest improvements would be institutions taking on a bigger role in protecting people's mental health.

They should acknowledge "at an institutional level that the onus for looking after mental health is not just on the individual, but the institution as well, to ensure a welcoming, safe working environment where everyone can thrive," said Ayres.

Academics may not be aware of other career paths or may think that switching careers means failure, said Dickerson.

That can result in those who are anxious to stay in academia sacrificing other aspects of their life to remain competitive.

"That also means they are very easily exploitable," said Dickerson. "If you want it badly enough you will work more hours, you will sacrifice more. Or someone who 'wants it more' will take their place."

Dragonfly Mental Health, a non-profit organization that advocates for the prioritization of mental health in academia, has seen an increase in demand for their mental health workshops.

In 2020, they carried out 25 workshops. This year, they have already held 34.

So far, the organization has done workshops in seven countries, reaching more than 6,000 academics. Through their ambassador program they are training people to host workshops and help them reach more countries.

"We scientists are very passionate about our work, and I know from my own experience that burning out is very, very often like a badge of honor and something that we need to relearn not to do," said Jelena Brasanac, a neuroscience Ph.D. fellow at Charite University Hospital in Berlin and chief organizational officer at Dragonfly Mental Health.

The organization's goal is to create systemic change and decrease stigma around mental health issues in academia.

"We really need to work in creating change, creating community awareness and education, and fighting stigma," Brasanac said, "because the most important thing for people who are in need of help is to be able to reach out for help without fearing for their professional life and any other repercussions."

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