Janet Mantler, PhD, Carleton University; Christine Tulk, MA, Carleton University; Nicole Power, PhD, Memorial University of Newfoundland; Sarah Simkin, MD, OCFP (FPA) MSc, University of Ottawa; Henrietta A. Boateng, MSc.; Ivy Bourgeault, PhD., University of Ottawa
The purpose of this study was to explore how academic staff manage mental ill-health and whether they request or receive workplace accommodations or take leaves of absence.
People with mental ill-health are often reluctant to ask for accommodations or leaves of absence because of the associated stigma (McDonald et al., 2011). Instead, it is likely that these workers have high rates of presenteeism, which can be costly to employers (Cooper & Dewe, 2008). In an academic context, faculty members have reported high levels of stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues (Kinman, 2001; Winefield et al., 2013). Preliminary evidence indicates that academic staff are unlikely to take leaves of absence (Mantler et al., 2019) but little is known about when and how they receive workplace accommodations or negotiate leaves of absence.
As part of a larger research program examining leaves of absence and return-to-work experiences of knowledge workers in Canada, for this mixed methods study, academics across Canada were emailed invitations for a survey (using Qualtrics) or interview (via Zoom) between November 2020 and May 2021. Participants were recruited primarily through union contacts, a Canadian social media firm, and snowball sampling via social media. Using a retrospective design, participants were asked about their mental health experiences, sources of work stress, leaves of absence, and workplace accommodations. In total, 333 academics completed a survey and 20 participated in an interview. The mean age was 49.4 (SD = 11.7), 73% of participants were women, and 94% identified as white. The majority were tenured (51%), tenure-track (17%), or tenured in an administrative role (6%), whereas 26% were in contractual positions.
When asked whether they had suffered from a mental health issue during the course of their career, 64% indicated they had; specific mental health issues identified were anxiety (35%), psychological distress (28%), burnout (22%), and depression (13%).
“I’ve had issues with anxiety. And I think, you know, I sort of am a very typical academic in some way, because it’s a high anxiety…” (Participant 6)
The key sources of work stress in the month prior to the pandemic were heavy workload and multiple demands (67%), digital stress (31%), and poor relations with administration (17%), supervisors (10%), and colleagues (15%). Based on the Stanford Presenteeism Scale, which assesses presenteeism as lost productivity, 91% of participants indicated that their mental health had a negative impact on their work productivity.
“I was still functioning. I was still teaching, probably not well. I had let all kinds of contractual obligations go.” (Participant 4)
Of the 218 participants who indicated they had a mental health issue prior to the pandemic, only 23% actually took a leave. Most commonly, people did not think their mental health issue was severe enough to warrant it (44%), they were concerned about negative impact on their reputation (37%) and on students (30%), and there was no one else to take on their work (25%).
“It’s always just felt like, well, if I took time off, it would only be time for me to just worry about stuff more, and I’ve never felt so incapacitated that I felt like I cannot continue to do my work at a level that I feel comfortable with.” (Participant 5)
Of the 218 people who experienced mental health issues, only 41 requested workplace accommodations and only 25 received an accommodation. To manage their mental ill-health, 55% of participants informally made changes to the way they worked mostly by reducing the amount of work and using their vacation time.
“Yeah, so I took an informal leave of absence, when [partner] was sick, I was off for a few weeks. I wasn’t teaching during that time. So that was a fairly easy thing to do.” (Participant 6)
This study provides insight into the experiences of academics with mental ill-health. It is rare for academics to take leaves of absence because they are concerned about professional stigma and they worry that there is no one else to take on their work as their colleagues are equally overwhelmed. It is even more rare that academics ask for work accommodations for mental ill-health, and when they do, they do not always receive them. Instead, academics change the way they work with the result of presenteeism and high rates of impaired productivity that can be hidden because of the relative autonomy of academics. The reduced productivity due to presenteeism, however, can have long term career consequences.
Although this may be a challenge, universities need to develop appropriate, and perhaps creative, workplace accommodations that allow academics with mental ill-health to continue working before a crisis occurs. Further, the stigma related to taking a leave of absence for mental ill-health needs to be addressed.