Are you struggling with the pressure of academic life? Do you find it challenging to maintain your mental health and well-being at work? In this blog post, we share five practical strategies for improving mental health and well-being as an early-career researcher. By setting boundaries, practicing self-care, prioritizing tasks, building a support network, and seeking support when needed, you can prioritize your well-being while also achieving your professional goals. The five tips help you navigate work-related challenges while maintaining your mental health and well-being.
As an early-career researcher, the pressure to publish, secure funding, and juggle multiple responsibilities can take a toll on your mental health and well-being. You’re probably familiar with the feeling that there seems to be no end to the workload. You work at your institute daily and, although you’re mastering one task after the other, your personal battery is flat. There is no time and energy left for personal tasks and regeneration.
Mental health concerns among young academics are on the rise, and many are struggling to find effective strategies for managing stress and maintaining their well-being at work. But taking steps to improve your mental health and well-being cannot only benefit you personally, but also improve your research productivity and job satisfaction.
In this post, we suggest five tips that you can immediately implement to improve your well-being in your research job. Whether you’re a graduate student, postdoctoral researcher, or early-career faculty member, these strategies can help you thrive in your academic career while also taking care of yourself. Improving your situation is within your reach, and even working on one of the tips can make a difference. Don’t stress yourself; take it slowly but steadily when following the tips to improve your mental health and well-being at your workplace.
Tip #1: Set boundaries
Setting boundaries between work (your research, your teaching, your admin load, your scientific outreach and communication activities) and personal life helps to prevent burnout. It means creating a clear separation between work and personal life. This could involve setting specific work hours, taking regular breaks throughout the day, and avoiding checking work email or messages during off hours. Let’s give some examples of how to set boundaries:
a) Establish a clear work schedule: Set specific work hours and stick to them as much as possible. During this time, focus on your research work and related tasks. Avoid stretching your work hours simply because you feel you should work more. At the same time, ensure that you use your scheduled work time for work-related tasks and stay away from other activities that drain your energy. A clear work schedule will help you avoid overworking and allow you to prioritize your personal life outside of work.
b) Avoid taking work home: Try to avoid bringing work home with you as much as possible. This may involve leaving work materials at the office, turning off your work phone or email notifications outside of work hours, or avoiding checking work messages during your off hours. We understand that this can be challenging, especially for those who are passionate about their research, but it’s important to create boundaries between work and personal life. If you work from home, consider designating a specific workspace that is separate from your living area to help you mentally separate your work and personal life.
c) Take breaks throughout the day: Taking regular breaks throughout the day can help you avoid feeling overwhelmed and give you time to recharge. This could involve taking a short walk, practising mindfulness or meditation, or simply stepping away from your work for a few minutes.
We learned this from a mentor we had in Norway with whom we had many long project meetings. Whenever we reached a difficult point in our meeting or felt we weren’t making progress anymore, we took a short break and went for a walk around the institute together. It helped a lot!
d) Communicate your boundaries: It’s important to communicate your boundaries with your supervisor, colleagues, and family. Let them know when you are available to work and when you are not, and ask for their support in maintaining your boundaries. It might feel difficult to communicate this to your colleagues, but once they understand that you’re not avoiding work but striving to maintain a healthy balance and fulfill your private life responsibilities satisfactorily, they will likely respect your message.
e) Make time for personal activities: It’s important to make time for activities outside of work that you enjoy. This could involve spending time with family and friends, pursuing hobbies or interests, or simply taking time for self-care activities like reading or taking a bath. Think about non-research related activities that you enjoy and then try to build them into your weekly schedule.
You’ll see by setting clear boundaries between your academic work and your private life, you can create a healthier work-life balance and improve your overall well-being.
Tip #2: Practice self-care
Taking care of yourself is essential for maintaining good mental health. It involves taking care of yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally. Here are a few examples of self-care activities that you can incorporate into your daily routine:
a) Exercise: Regular exercise can help reduce stress, boost energy levels, and improve mood. This could involve going for a walk or jog, attending a yoga class, or doing a home workout.
b) Eating a healthy diet: A healthy diet can provide the necessary nutrients to support physical and mental health. This could involve incorporating more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins into your diet.
c) Getting enough sleep: Getting enough sleep is essential for physical and mental well-being. This could involve establishing a regular sleep routine, avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bedtime, and creating a relaxing sleep environment.
d) Mindfulness and meditation: Practicing mindfulness and meditation can help reduce stress and improve overall well-being. This could involve taking a few minutes each day to focus on your breath, or using a meditation app or guided meditation.
e) Pursuing hobbies and interests: Pursuing hobbies and interests outside of work can help you relax and recharge. This could involve reading, playing music, hiking, or any other activity that brings you joy.
By incorporating self-care activities into your daily work-life routine can help you feel more balanced, energized, and focused, which can ultimately improve your work performance and overall well-being.
Tip #3: Seek support
It’s important to seek support when you are feeling overwhelmed or stressed. This could involve reaching out to others for help and guidance when facing challenges related to mental health and well-being. Again a few examples of ways you can seek support:
a) Counseling or therapy: Counseling or therapy can provide a safe and confidential space to talk about mental health concerns, develop coping strategies, and work through difficult emotions. Many universities offer counseling services for students and staff.
b) Support groups: Joining a support group can provide a sense of community and connection with others who are facing similar challenges. This could involve joining a support group specifically for early-career researchers, or a group focused on a particular mental health concern.
c) Talk to a trusted friend or colleague: Talking to a trusted friend or colleague can provide a listening ear and emotional support. This could involve sharing your concerns and seeking advice, or simply having a conversation to relieve stress.
d) Seek guidance from a mentor or supervisor: Mentors and supervisors can provide guidance and support related to academic and career development, as well as mental health and well-being. They may be able to provide resources, referrals, or support in navigating workplace challenges.
e) Take advantage of employee assistance programs (EAPs): Many universities and employers offer EAPs, which provide confidential counseling and referral services to support mental health and well-being. EAPs can also provide resources related to stress management, work-life balance, and other concerns.
By seeking support, you also reduce the stigma associated with mental health concerns and promote a culture of support and compassion in your institute.
Tip #4: Prioritise tasks
Prioritising tasks and setting achievable goals can help you avoid feeling overwhelmed. To do so you need to identify which tasks are most important and urgent, and focusing on those tasks first. Again some examples of how you can prioritise tasks:
a) Make a to-do list: Creating a to-do list can help you prioritize tasks and stay organized. Start by identifying which tasks are most important and urgent, and list them in order of priority.
b) Use a planner or calendar: Using a planner or calendar can help you schedule your time effectively and avoid overcommitting yourself. Block off time for important tasks, and be realistic about how long each task will take.
c) Break tasks into smaller steps: Breaking larger tasks into smaller steps can make them feel more manageable and help you stay focused. Identify the first step you need to take to start the task, and focus on completing that step.
By focusing on the most important tasks first, you can avoid feeling overwhelmed and overworked. Prioritising tasks can also help you manage your time more effectively and avoid procrastination, which can contribute to stress and anxiety. In addition, it can help you feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction as you see that you complete tasks and make progress toward your goals. This boosts motivation and energy levels, which contribute to overall well-being and job satisfaction. Check out our post “Identify your top PhD priority to boost your progress” to identify priorities for your PhD project.
Tip #5: Build a support network
Building a strong support network can help you feel more connected and supported in your work. This could involve joining a professional association or network, attending conferences and workshops, or connecting with colleagues and peers in your field.
Building a support network involves developing relationships with people who can provide emotional support, guidance, and resources to help you navigate work-related challenges and maintain your mental health and well-being. Here are some suggestions on how to build a support network:
a) Connect with colleagues: Building relationships with colleagues can provide a sense of community and support. Attend departmental events or social gatherings, join a campus club or organization, or volunteer for a committee to meet new people and build relationships. Joining a graduate programme or PhD school is also a good option to start with, see our post PhD graduate school: Your game changer! for a start.
b) Seek out mentors: Mentors can provide guidance and support related to academic and career development, as well as mental health and well-being. Look for mentors who share your research interests or who have experience in your field, and seek out opportunities to connect with them.
c) Attend professional development events: Attending conferences, workshops, and other professional development events can provide opportunities to network and meet new people in your field. Take advantage of opportunities to connect with other attendees and build relationships.
d) Join a support group: Joining a support group can provide a sense of community and connection with others who are facing similar challenges. Look for support groups specifically for early-career researchers or groups focused on a particular mental health concern.
e) Seek out counseling or therapy: Counseling or therapy can provide a safe and confidential space to talk about mental health concerns, develop coping strategies, and work through difficult emotions. Many universities offer counseling services for students and staff.
Overall, maintaining good mental health and well-being is crucial for early-career researchers to thrive in their academic careers. By setting boundaries, practising self-care, prioritising tasks, building a support network, and seeking support when needed, young academics can prioritize their well-being while also achieving their professional goals.
It’s important to remember that these strategies are not a one-size-fits-all solution, and you may need to adjust and tailor them to fit your unique circumstances. However, by incorporating these tips into their daily routines, you can create a more supportive and positive work environment, which can ultimately lead to greater productivity, job satisfaction, and overall well-being.
Don’t forget to download our free checklist for monitoring and improving your mental health and well-being at work. It includes 10 actionable tips that can help you prioritise your tasks, set boundaries, practice self-care, seek support, and build a support network. Simply click the link here to get your copy of 10 tips to improve your mental health and well-being at work!
- Checklist ’10 tips to improve your mental health and well-being at work’
- Smart Academics Blog post #12: PhD graduate school: Your game changer!
- Smart Academics Blog post #37: 5 ways to boost your energy as a researcher!
- Smart Academics Blog post #59: Overwhelmed by PhD work? Here’s the way out!
- Smart Academics Blog post #71:How to get a private life and a PhD
- Smart Academics Blog post #94: The researcher’s guide to holidays
- Smart Academics Blog post #113: Identify your top PhD priority to boost your progress
Do you want to successfully complete your PhD? If so, please sign up to receive our free guides.
Photograph by Jon Tyson at Unsplash
© 2023 Tress Academic