More work needed to understand UK researchers mental health

21 July 2017

There is limited published evidence on the prevalence of mental health conditions among UK researchers, according to a literature review by RAND Europe out today and jointly commissioned by the Royal Society and Wellcome Trust. The report recommends more work be carried out to investigate mental health in the research environment.

The recent Health Survey for England 2014 showed that 26 per cent of all adults reported having ever been diagnosed with at least one mental illness and a further 18 per cent of adults reported having experienced a mental illness without a formal diagnosis. In the research environment, a range of factors can impact individuals’ mental health. The pressure to publish and win grants in highly competitive environments; job insecurity; workplace bullying and harassment; and work/family conflict can all have an effect.

The Royal Society and Wellcome Trust commissioned RAND Europe to assess what is known about mental health in the research environment, and explore the strengths and limitations of the existing evidence base.


A systematic review of existing literature found that:

  • Higher education staff experience worse wellbeing than those in other types of employment.
  • The majority of university staff find their jobs stressful, with levels of burnout appearing to be higher among university staff than the general working population.
  • Around 40 per cent of postgraduate students experience mental health problems, such as symptoms of depression, emotion or stress-related problems, or high levels of stress.
  • PhD students face similar mental health challenges to other researchers and higher education staff due to the high levels of work demands and work-life conflict, low job control, poor support from the supervisor and exclusion from decision making.
  • Academics appear to not be disclosing their mental health conditions. UK national statistics indicate that only 6.2 per cent of university staff disclosed a mental health condition to their employer, but academics have been found to be among the occupational groups with the highest levels of common mental disorders with a prevalence of around 37 per cent.
  • Job insecurity (real and perceived) appears to be an important issue for those working in research environments, particularly for early-career researchers who are often employed on successive short-term contracts.
  • Women researchers report more exposure to stress than men and also report greater challenges around work-life balance.
  • Research-only staff reported lower levels of work-life conflict and had better wellbeing than other higher education staff, although other characteristics, such as seniority, could play confounding roles.
  • Studies showed that staff involved in research on sensitive topics, such as trauma or abuse, may be emotionally affected by the material they encounter in their work and should receive greater support to mitigate the negative impacts of this work.
  • Job stress and poor workplace wellbeing can contribute to reduced productivity for researchers – both through absenteeism, where researchers missing work, but more importantly, through presenteeism, where researchers attend work and are less productive. The overall effects of have not been fully quantified, but estimates suggest that the costs could be more than £500 million per year for the UK’s higher education sector alone.
  • The majority of interventions aim to support researchers to deal with workplace stress, but they may not be effective in addressing the root causes of that stress or wider mental health problems relating to life outside work.


RAND Europe recommended further research on the following topics:

  1. Study the prevalence of mental health conditions amongst postdoctoral researchers, building on approaches used in recent studies of postgraduate students.
  2. Map mental health policies and procedures at UK Higher Education Institutions to improve understanding of mental health policies and procedures.
  3. Conduct more and higher-quality evaluations of mental health interventions and publish their results to identify what works in this area.
  4. Investigate and develop existing standards, such as the Health and Safety Executive management standards, as a framework for workplace mental health management in research environments to identify mechanisms at play in those settings.