Christine Tulk, MA, Carleton University; Janet Mantler, PhD, Carleton University; Sarah Simkin, MD, University of Ottawa; Nicole Power, PhD, Memorial University of Newfoundland; Henrietta A. Boateng, MSc, University of Ottawa; Ivy Bourgeault, PhD, University of Ottawa

The purpose of the study is to examine how gender and job precarity influence mental health and presenteeism in academia.

Although attention towards workplace mental health has increased in recent decades, there is little empirical evidence as to whether mental ill-health is associated with lower productivity for academics. Academics have reported much lower levels of psychological health (Kinman, 2001) and high psychological strain (Winefield et al., 2003) compared to the general population. There is also evidence, however, that academics don’t tend to take leaves of absences to recover from mental health issues (Mantler et al., 2019), making it likely that rates of presenteeism (i.e., continuing to work while ill are high.

To increase understanding of mental ill-health and its impact on academic work, the present study examined indicators of mental health and presenteeism with a particular focus on gender and precariousness. Given that academia is a gendered institution with a culture that defines excellence according to traditional masculine standards (Salminen-Karlsson et al., 2018), it is important to investigate mental health issues from a gendered perspective. Academic women take on more academic housework (Heijstra et al., 2017) and more childcare responsibilities at home (McCutcheon & Morrison, 2016) compared to academic men, and the tenure-track period when academics are under great pressure coincides with childbearing years when even childless women struggle to be viewed as committed and avoid being “mommy-tracked” (Cummins, 2012). In addition, widespread practices of using a contractual workforce in academia mean that a substantial number of academics are working in precarious positions and experiencing high levels of job insecurity (Cohen, 2013), which is associated with increased burnout and poor psychological well-being (De Witte et al., 2016). Mental health problems contribute to high levels of presenteeism (Cooper & Dewe, 2008), which has implications in academia not only for financial costs and knowledge loss but also for slowed career progress.

As part of a larger study examining leaves of absence and return-to-work experiences of knowledge workers in Canada, 333 participants (73% women) working in academia were recruited through union contacts, a Canadian market research firm, and snowball sampling to respond to an online survey hosted by Qualtrics. Participants had a mean age of 49.4 (SD = 11.7) and primarily held tenured or tenure-track positions (52% tenured, 17% tenure-track, 27% contract/session/term). Survey items to assess mental health included the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K6; Kessler et al., 2002), a single-item measure of burnout (Physician Worklife Survey; Williams et al., 1999), and a single-item measure of self-perceived general mental health. Items to assess presenteeism included the Stanford Presenteeism Scale (SPS-6; Koopman et al., 2002), which represents presenteeism as lost productivity, and a single item taken from Aronsson and Gustafsson (2005) asking how often participants had worked despite feeling they should not have. All items were asked with reference to the period of time since the start of physical distancing measures during the COVID-19 pandemic and then repeated with reference to the period of time just prior to the start of the pandemic.

All data collection is completed, and analyses are planned for late June 2021. Using a series of multiple regressions, control and predictor variables will be regressed on psychological distress, burnout, general mental health, and presenteeism. Age and number of children at home will be included as control variables. Participant gender (men, women) and precariousness (no: tenured positions, semi: tenure-track positions, yes: contract, sessional, term positions) will be included as predictor variables. We hypothesize that being a woman will predict poorer mental health and higher presenteeism. We also hypothesize that academics in precarious or semi-precarious positions have poorer mental health and higher presenteeism compared to those in more secure positions.

Based on existing evidence (e.g., Heijstra et al., 2017; McCutcheon & Morrison, 2016) that academic women tend to experience higher demands compared to academic men, we expect to find that being a woman will predict poorer mental health and higher levels of presenteeism. In line with previous research on job insecurity (e.g., De Witte et al., 2016) and factors that pressure individuals to attend work while ill (e.g., Aronsson & Gustafsson, 2005), we also expect to find that precariousness will predict poorer mental health and higher levels of presenteeism. It is important to note, however, that participants self-selected into the study, and preliminary analyses suggest that academics with mental health problems are overrepresented in this sample. This will limit generalization of results to the wider population of academics.

The academic world is demanding and competitive, and experiencing gender inequity or having precarious work arrangements are likely to result in higher levels of mental ill-health and lost productivity. By contributing to the limited empirical evidence on the role of gender and precariousness in mental health and presenteeism in academia, the results of this study can be used to understand whether an academic culture that encourages people to take time off for their mental health and that reduces the level of precarity in employment contracts would yield healthier and more productive academics.

Tags: Applied research, COVID-19, Empirical study, Psychological and Biological Effects of Job Stress, Workplace Stress; Outcomes; and Recovery