How can mental health ECRs adjust to disrupted research and working from home?
Sam Parsons discusses challenges ECRs face and the need for a strong mental health research community.
Like many, I trivialised the impact working from home would have on my productivity and mental health. Usually, working from home is a welcome break from my commute to the office and gives me a day to focus on the tasks I am most invested in completing. Fewer meetings and zero commute sounded ok. Yet, barely three weeks into social distancing – and less for social isolation – I can feel the cracks beginning to form. Maintaining the same level of productivity while being concerned about vulnerable family, your own health (I have type 1 diabetes), and protecting others takes a toll.
I was asked to share some thoughts as a mental health Early Career Researcher (ECR) on adjusting to working from home. I aim to be candid; adjusting does not mean working as before. Nor do I aim to repeat advice from others. Sugar coating the challenges only suppresses the problems of the more vulnerable and less privileged in our research community. We should not expect business as usual; this would be a disservice to everyone with childcare responsibilities, mental health issues, physical health conditions, and vulnerable family. This said, here are some reflections on adjusting to #workingfromhome as an ECR. I may not have fully adjusted myself, but this week is better than last week. Adjustment, like resilience, is a process.
Protecting ours and others mental health, as well as our physical health, is vital. Rethink Mental Illness, Oxford’s Anxiety and Trauma Group, the Mental Health Foundation, and the NHS have each released thoughtful advice on taking care of your mental health at this time. The biggest adjustment I have made in the past week is to drastically reduce my social media use. Before that, I could not help but be paralysed by the torrent of COVID-19 information, latest figures, new advice, and bad takes. Now I discipline myself to make the most of direct messages and virtual meetings. This has allowed me to maximise the (virtual) social interaction while minimising doom scrolling. Opening my mind to virtual hangouts with colleagues and friends has been hugely beneficial in adjusting to social isolation. In addition to looking after your own mental health and wellbeing, please support your friends and colleagues to protect theirs.
Although I focus mainly on the impact COVID-19 and the lockdown will have on ECRs personally, I want to acknowledge the impact on our mental health services and on patient outcomes. Access to mental health support and services is more limited than ever. Additionally, important research on patient and treatment outcomes has been delayed. These delays will likely lead to a wellbeing cost by limiting providing access to the best support and treatment. Mental Health Research Matters precisely because of the people it intends to help.
See advice from Rethink Mental Illness, Oxford’s Anxiety and Trauma Group, the Mental Health Foundation, and the NHS on looking after your mental health. And please, support the mental health of your friends and colleagues too.
Most ECRs are familiar with a common set of worries: career insecurity, pressures to publish, inadequate support, too short contracts, and impostor syndrome to name a few (e.g. surveys from Wellcome and Nature). Part of our adjustment to a new life working from home will be managing these anxieties – in future #MentalHealthResearchMatters posts we will discuss the role of mental health leadership and culture in supporting ECRs.
Pandemic related disruptions to our work will amplify and complicate these issues. As Vanessa Pinfold wrote in an earlier blogpost: “The science we were carrying out last week is no longer possible”. In my own research group, two undergraduate students I supervise on a school-based project were no longer able to collect data. Now what? In short, I simulated data based on what we had already collected. We found a workaround that seems to satisfy everybody. However, this approach is not suitable outside of student projects.
ECRs have a greater challenge with delayed testing; our science depends on it, and a common feeling is that our careers do too. Delays in data collection can impede research degree milestones or make it impossible to complete work within a temporary contract. Some studies will have been completely compromised; pre-post intervention studies, research in clinical settings, and more. We are all facing some difficulty in our research as a result of the pandemic. There is no simple fix that will help us adjust to research life during a pandemic, but as a community we can support one another.
Adjustment, like resilience, is a process. Mental Health research is complicated in the best of circumstances. We need a strong community to handle current challenges.
Everything is cancelled
We have been forced to adjusting to the reality that conferences, workshops, and talks have been cancelled or postponed. Even events in the mid-long term might be at risk. I’m even concerned that a half-day workshop I agreed to deliver in September might be cancelled. For ECRs, cancelled events mean we can’t share research, we can’t meet our colleagues and potential collaborators, and we can’t brag about our conference achievements on our CV. The perpetual ECR worry re-emerges: will this hinder my job prospects?
Thankfully, in many of these cases we can adapt can’t into can-but-different. Accepted talks can be added to CVs with the note [accepted but meeting cancelled due to COVID-19]. Talks can be delivered virtually. Slides and posters can be shared online; conferences can even host all presenter materials on OSFmeetings, e.g. the metascience 2019 symposium. Meetings and workshops can be held online, e.g. many ReproducibiliTea open science Journal Clubs are working online. The UKRI mental health research networks are also a potential avenue for sharing work. ECRs can still get recognition for their work, but we do have to adjust our ways to do so.
I am not implying that these options are easy outs, or that they will be applicable in every case. Some things simply cannot happen virtually. As a community, we need to adapt the way we think about communicating our research and organising large meetings.
Keeping up morale: Strengthening our community
It’s only fair to readjust our expectations for productivity during this crisis. This week Dorothy Bishop hosted a virtual journal club playfully titled “What can you do if your research plans are scuppered by COVID19?” following from her earlier blogpost asking the same question. As a group of 30+ people we discussed options like archiving data, analysing existing data, preparing a registered report for a future/delayed study, and learning new skills. The discussion was supportive and reinforced the need to put our mental health before productivity; the backdrop to the discussion was a shared understanding that we cannot expect the same level of productivity as before.
For me, the most encouraging part was to hear from a well-respected senior researcher that she had confidence in the capacity of funders and institutions to support researchers in the aftermath of the pandemic. The best we can do to make this a reality is come together as a community of mental health researchers. As a community, we need to prioritise thinking proactively about supporting our ECR and student members.
Help us by joining this conversation and sharing your thoughts on how we can best contribute: #MentalHealthResearchMatters.
In future #MentalHealthResearchMatters blogposts, I will explore how the culture of mental health research can best support its early career members.