Scientific background

Mental health issues present a significant challenge in the EU. A systematic review of data across the EU, Norway, Iceland and Switzerland shows that more than a quarter (27%) of the adult population has experienced mental health disorders in the past year - which would be an estimated 83 million people. This is further emphasised by the latest Eurostat data which suggests 4% of all deaths in the EU in 2015 resulted from mental and behavioural disorders; and that in 2014, 7% of the EU population reported having chronic depression. This challenge is also present within the research community. A review across different occupational groups suggests that academics are among the occupational groups with the highest levels of common mental disorders (alongside social services staff and teachers). The review estimated the prevalence of common mental disorders among academics and teachers at 37%, compared with a prevalence of approximately 19% in the general population. Across a number of studies based on the GHQ-12, a well-validated screening tool for psychological distress, the evidence suggests that between 32% and 42% of academic employees are ‘at risk of having or developing a common psychiatric disorder’. A number of studies have looked at this issue specifically for postgraduate students, finding similar levels of mental ill-health. However, there are few studies breaking this down for other groups - for example postdoctoral researchers, who might also face many similar workplace challenges. In addition, there is limited evidence on what constitutes effective practice to address mental health challenges in academia, with most interventions reported in the literature on a small scale, with a limited population; and often the quality of evaluations conducted is poor. Although it is likely that activities are ongoing in many institutions, based on anecdotal evidence from the participants in this COST Action, there is little reported in the literature and capacities are limited to share best practices across the European research community. Although there is evidence from other sectors regarding mental health in the workplace, this needs to be understood in the context of the unique work environment in which researchers are operating. This can be characterised in a number of ways including: high levels of mobility leading to potential cultural differences and language barriers; a diverse workforce; high levels of job insecurity and short term contracts; limited management and mental health training in leadership typically; and challenges in measuring productivity and outcomes. Therefore, it is important to understand how mental health and wellbeing can be characterised and improved; how progress and outcomes can be measured across and within this unique workforce; building shared learning and communities of practice at all levels, from those researching the topic, through institutions and policymakers, to those practically providing support on the ground and putting interventions into practice. To address this challenge, this COST Action has three main objectives: 

  1. Building an Evidence Hub: The Evidence Hub (E-HUB), a newly established network of researchers, practitioners, research managers and funders, aims to extend the limited evidence base on mental health and wellbeing provision in academia. Activities of the E-HUB include: 
    1. systematic evaluation of the current mental health situation in the academic sector by country, organizational and individual levels; 
    2. examination of perceived barriers and facilitators to mental health and wellbeing provision, as well as performance enhancement strategies, with respect to cultural, political and institutional differences across the countries; 
    3. development of new collaborative pathways between researchers as a means to increase awareness, knowledge and mutual support around mental health, wellbeing and performance enhancement strategies. 
  2. Setting up a Training and Dialogue Network (TDN): The network aims to build awareness around mental health and performance issues in academia and provide a platform for researchers, practitioners and policymakers alike to engage in dialogue on these issues. A training programme will help members learn about and implement effective wellbeing and performance enhancement strategies. 
  3. Developing institutional policy and best practice guidelines: The E-HUB and TDN will allow us to formulate and disseminate evidence-based, implementable best practice guidelines. Guidelines for mental health provision, wellbeing and performance enhancement in academia will be developed, detailing aspects around assessment, evaluation, intervention and prevention approaches to ensure lasting, impactful institutional policies. 

The ReMO COST Action on Researcher Mental Health is funded by the COST Association with support from the Horizon 2020 Framework Programme of the EU under the project number CA19117.