Why anxiety is a structural feature of academia and what we can do about it

Davide Giusino


Anxiety is commonly experienced in organizations. It is especially true for contemporary universities and higher education systems, both in research and teaching, due to how academic jobs are designed, managed and organized. Below, I explain why I take that perspective and provide an overview the concept of anxiety as well as identify some key characteristics of academic institutional structures that may lead to academics’ work-related anxiety. I also provide actionable strategies to address this issue.


Anxiety is defined around five descriptive pillars:

· negative valence – it is an undesirable emotion, people do not like it;

· high arousal – it comes with a great deal of physiological energy;

· perception of high uncertainty and unpredictability of the external world;

· low feeling of control over situations;

· being elicited by threatening and personally relevant events.


It is apparent from this definition that anxiety is intrinsic to academic jobs. Indeed, scientific research is inherently about having to make new discoveries, e.g. significant empirical findings, and having to develop innovations, e.g. novel theories or conceptualizations. Therefore, academics unavoidably have to live with uncertainty and unpredictability. Although some findings might be expected based on hypotheses, one can never know until the actual results are achieved – so much so that serendipity has been argued to play a major role in science. Complementarily, feelings of little control may derive from the nature, content and scope of academic performance evaluation systems and their functioning mechanisms. For instance, having no idea when editorial feedback about a submitted paper will arrive, worrying about such feedback being negative, or worrying about students’ evaluations of teaching, might be common experiences among academics. These potential threats are usually personally relevant to academics, whose professional identity is often very strong.


Also, specific types of work cultures have been linked to increased employee anxiety, namely result-oriented cultures and work environments hosting warring factions. On the one hand, result-oriented cultures mostly emphasize work outputs and the achievement of specific, measurable and time-related goals. With heavy focus on number of publications and citations to determine career promotions within set deadlines, academia can be easily deemed as a result-oriented culture, so that a connection between anxiety and academic work is established. On the other hand, the fierce competition which is ongoing today in the neoliberal academic system to secure at least parts of limited resources – e.g., grants, funding, positions – depicts academia as a workplace where individual or collective factions may find themselves fighting each other.


The good news is that anxiety can be acted upon. Here is a couple of practical recommendations. First, we should talk about it. Faculties can engage in structured and formalized discussions about anxiety in academia. Conversations may happen at the departmental level or being included in educational curricula – e.g., doctoral studies – to normalize the phenomenon.

Second, we can strive to change the system. But we will change the system only if we recognize that the system is us, and that it depends on our behaviors and practices we perpetrate ourselves. We can therefore act to reduce emphasis on results and competitions in academia, for example when interacting with colleagues, supervisors, students.


I hope these reflections will reach academics and stimulate actions to create mentally healthy academic workplaces.


References


Berg, L.D., Huijbens, E.H., and Larsen, H.G., 2016. Producing anxiety in the neoliberal university. The Canadian Geographer/Le Géographe Candien, 60(2), pp. 168-180.


McCulloch, A., 2021. Serendipity in doctoral education: The importance of chance and the prepared mind in the PhD. Journal of Further and Higher Education, pp. 1-14.


Schwartz, M.A., 2008. The importance of stupidity in scientific research. Journal of Cell Science, 121(11), p. 1771.


Yip, J.A., Levine, E.E., Brooks, A.W. and Schweitzer, M.E., 2021. Worry at work: How organizational culture promotes anxiety. Research in Organizational Behavior, pp. 1-13.


Author:

Davide Giusino, PhD Student

Department of Psychology, University of Bologna, Italy