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Oh me nerves

Sociologist leading study on professionals’ mental health


By Janet Harron

Increasing workload, looming deadlines, administrative duties . . . It’s no surprise to academics that there are significant mental health issues related to their profession and the working conditions therein.

Dr. Nicole Power, Department of Sociology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, is a key member of The Healthy Professional Workers (HPW) Partnerships Initiative that aims to understand more about mental health in professional workers across three sectors: dentists, midwives, nurses and physicians in health care; academics and teaching in education; and accountants.

Dr. Power is the co-lead of the group researching academic workers. Her group will be looking at several universities across the country, including Memorial.

“Academic workers report a great deal of anxiety related to working conditions, primarily stemming from a sense of surveillance around teaching evaluations, peer review, promotion and tenure, etc.,” said Ms. Power, adding that preliminary research suggests gender differences in these experiences.

“This anxiety is heightened in institutions where faculty are encouraged to demonstrate the impact of their research in quantitative ways, such as how many times they are cited by other people.”

First of its kind

The HPW was recently awarded $1,425,000 in funding over five years (2018-23) from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Institute of Gender and Health.

This partnership is the first of its kind to bring together academics and a range of community partners across multiple locations and worker groups to address these pressing issues. It represents a collaboration of more than 20 researchers from 15 universities across Canada covering seven provinces and four international collaborators from four universities across the United Kingdom.

The project also includes more than 30 community-based partners representing the range of interests from workers, unions/professional associations, employers and policy decision-makers.

Using an innovative multi-method design, the research team hopes to identify, test and share promising practices in the promotional of psychologically safe and healthy workplaces among the professions participating in the research. The behaviours and leadership styles of supervisors and managers are also important influences on work-related mental health; leadership will be featured as a cross-cutting theme.

“By taking a comparative perspective on mental health among professional knowledge workers, we hope to better understand the mental health needs of all professionals in our study and to learn from and share best practices among the professions,” said Dr. Power, who will be looking at the experiences of tenure, tenure-track and per course instructors.

Mental health leave is low among academics

The research also aims to examine the relationship among leaves of absence, return to work and mental health.

Preliminary research suggests that academics do not often take leaves for mental health issues.

However, when they do, according to Dr. Power, there is a gender difference, with women being more likely than men to be affected by personal or familial mental health issues associated with leaves of absence. The research aims to identify the barriers to taking workplace leaves, how best to accommodate return to work and the extent to which gender plays a role in these processes.

Dr. Power hopes to ultimately develop grounded research for improving public policy that will in turn lead to healthy and psychologically safe workplaces as recommended by the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.

Those interested in learning more about the project are encouraged to contact Dr. Power.

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