Brûler la chandelle par les deux bouts

Michel Ouellet - Research Administrator, Universite Laval

Factors that influence burnouts among research administrators

This article is a summary of a manuscript published by K. Tabakakis, J. Besch and Quyen To in Research Management Review (2020) Volume 24, Number 1, Pages 22-43. The full paper can be found here. I am in no way an expert on burnouts or work-related mental health issues. This is only my take on an article I found interesting, my thoughts on the results presented, and my opinions on their relative significance. My intentions are only to highlight the importance of research on the working conditions and mental health of research administrators, and maybe to prompt a certain amount of reflexive thought and introspection among RAs. The opinions stated here are my own.

We all know that research administration is a stressful job. Hard deadlines, high competitiveness, strong egos, ever increasing burden and complexity of issues, these are just a few of the challenges that research administrators are expected to handle, every hour of every day. These expectations can sometimes lead to physical and mental health issues, from musculoskeletal disorders to depression and burnout. In this paper from Tabakakis and coll., the authors have specifically focused their interest on a population of research administrators from four developed countries (US, UK, Australia, and Canada) to identify the prevalence of burnout among them while also identifying intrinsic and extrinsic factors that may be involved.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job, and reduced professional efficacy.

The authors performed a cross-sectional study surveying RAs from four research administration associations between October 2018 and January 2019. These associations include:

  • Association of Research Managers and Administrators (ARMA) in the U.K.;
  • Australasian Research Management Society (ARMS);
  • Canadian Association of Research Administrators (CARA);
  • National Council of University Research Administrators (NCURA) in the U.S.

A total of 13 900 participants were solicited, of which 2236 participants completed all questions, therefore providing a response rate of 17.4%. Sample characteristics including gender, age, highest educational qualification, length of time working in research administration, member association, employment type, role type, job satisfaction, average hours worked per week in the last two weeks, considered leaving the profession, and self-reported health status were reported as a percentage. A slightly modified Copenhagen Burnout Inventory (CBI) was used to evaluate three burnout outcomes separately, that is personal, work-related, and client-related burnout.

The CBI provides a scale of personal burnout by which the authors wanted to make sure that they could compare individuals regardless of occupational status (e.g. also young people, unemployed, early retired, pensioners, etc.). This scale is thus intended to answer the simple question: How tired or exhausted are you? The Work-related burnout scale relates to “The degree of physical and psychological fatigue and exhaustion that is perceived by the person as related to his/her work”. In this definition, the authors want to focus on the person's own attribution of symptoms to her/his work. Thus, it is not intended to assess causality per se but, by comparing the scale for personal burnout with the scale for work-related burnout, it is possible to identify persons who are tired but who attribute their fatigue to non-work factors such as health problems or family demands. Finally, client-related burnout is defined as “The degree of physical and psychological fatigue and exhaustion that is perceived by the person as related to his/her work with clients”. Again, people can attribute their fatigue to factors other than their work with clients. The focus this time is the degree to which people see a connection between their fatigue and their “people work”. “Clients” is a broad concept covering terms such as patients, inmates, children, students, residents, etc. As research administrators, our most frequent clients are usually the researchers themselves but can also be patient partners, other administrators, or various business, industry, or healthcare representatives.

Among respondents of the survey, a large proportion were women (82.3%), people aged 30–49 years (64.3%), people who worked full-time (89.8%), people who had a master’s or doctorate (55.6%), people who have 5 years or more of experience as RA (75.9%), and people who worked 40 hours a week or more (73.0%). The prevalence of high personal burnout (PB), work-related burnout (WRB), and client related burnout (CRB) was on average 68.3%, 60.0% and 37.0%, respectively. Average scores of 50 or greater in each of the three scales were interpreted as a high level of burnout with greater severity of fatigue and exhaustion. I will discuss about the possible determinants of burnout identified by the authors later but I, for one, was very much surprised about the reported high prevalence of burnout among RAs.

Importantly, the authors also highlight a prevalence of self-reported exposure to sexual harassment, threats of violence, physical violence, and bullying among RAs in the last 12 months of 3.8%, 1.9%, 0.4%, and 32.4%, respectively. Not surprisingly, RAs who had experienced sexual harassment, threats of violence and/or bullying had higher scores for PB, WRB, and CRB than RAs who had not.

About bullying, the questionnaire defined it as such: “Bullying means that a person is repeatedly exposed to unpleasant or degrading treatment, and that the person finds it difficult to defend himself or herself against it”. While the high prevalence of bullying seems worrisome to me, the authors analysed categorical frequency answers as binary, meaning that ‘yes daily’, ‘yes weekly’, ‘yes monthly’, ‘yes a few times’ were considered simply as ‘yes’ and compared to ‘no’. In other words, the high prevalence boils down to the answer to the question: “In the last 12 months, did you ever consider yourself to be the victim of bullying?” In any case, any form or frequency of bullying is not acceptable and should be much lower than the reported figure. Knowing that, what can be done to protect RAs from bullying? How can we protect ourselves?

This study has shown that high burnout was prevalent among RAs, and that gender, considered leaving, average hours worked per week, self-rated health, job satisfaction, quantitative demands, tempo (work pace), influence at work, predictability, recognition, role clarity, quality of leadership, work-family conflict, justice and respect, and trust in management were all independently associated with all three forms of burnout. Planning to leave the profession is strongly associated with higher PB, WRB, and CRB. This suggests that burnout may be a driver of workplace departures. In this study, a staggering figure of 60% of RAs indicated they considered leaving their job in the last 12 months.

RAs working 44 hours or more per week had higher PB, WRB, and CRB. Working long hours, when combined with the typical profile of an RA, would be an unsurprising contributor to burnout. Spending more time at work means less time for familial or social commitments, which may contribute to higher burnout scores. Authors suggest that organizations should promote a culture of work-life balance to ensure better employee and organizational outcomes. While I wholeheartedly agree with this suggestion, RAs should also be mindful of their own limits and should thus impose themselves strict rules about what absolutely requires overtime and what can, and should, wait.

Authors report that female RAs had higher average scores for PB and WRB, but not CRB. They suggest that it may indicate that the physical and psychological fatigue, and exhaustion experienced by female RAs stems less from client contact (CRB) and more directly from their work (WRB) and non-work factors (PB). According to the authors, female RAs, who form most of the research administration workforce, enjoy their dynamic place within the innovation system and their higher order contributions. However, some are questioning whether they do this work in a less than supportive work and personal setting compared with their male counterparts. Researchers at the University of Kent are trying to identify whether flexible working policies designed to accommodate the needs of people managing multiple work and life demands are in part contributing to the lower likelihood of female research managers occupying leadership roles. If that is the case, then new avenues should be explored to improve working conditions and work-life balance. The goal is to ensure that these people are less likely to experience burnout and continue to contribute at a high level. On a side note, this study has shown that men had higher CRB scores than women, hinting at the possibility that men would experience greater psychological fatigue and exhaustion stemming from interaction with clients.

Authors also report a trend in which younger RAs (aged 20–29) had higher CRB than most older age groups, but not PB and WRB. This indicates that younger RAs are struggling with the client-related aspects of their role, possibly because their clients are older, more qualified, and more senior in the organization. Additional support for younger RAs in this aspect would possibly be beneficial and could include activities to boost effective communication, to manage stress, or to encourage workplace coaching and mentoring.

In Table 1, I summed up the factors that were identified by the authors as having a positive, negative or null association on burnout (PB, WRB or CRB). If you are interested in finding more information about each of these factors and how the authors explain their possible association, I urge you to read the article itself. I find interesting that all factors identified with a positive association with burnout are related either to work pressure (as in, the amount of work that one employee is expected to complete in one day) or to interpersonal conflict. As work pressure is often a driver of work-related interpersonal conflicts and work-family conflicts, I wonder if these are truly independent variables in this context. Also, as “planning to leave the profession” is, at least by my account, certainly in a large part due to the underlying presence of driving factors (or the lack of protective factors) on burnout, I did not report it in the table.

Positive association with burnout (Bad)

Negative association with burnout (Good)

No effect

Workload

Work pace (tempo)

Interpersonal conflict

Work-family conflict

Influence at work (job control)

Predictability

Recognition

Vertical trust

Justice and respect

Social support from supervisors

Commitment to workplace

Quality of leadership (minor)

Role clarity (minor)

Meaningful work (only for CRB)

Professional development

Table 1. Factors evaluated and their association with burnout (any outcome).

On the good side, factors that were negatively associated with burnout, maybe unsurprisingly, relate to what most would consider a healthy work environment, in which an employee is valued, recognized, respected, and treated fairly. They also point towards the amount of control employees have on what they must do (job control), predictability of their work and their working environment, and a bidirectional trust with their supervisors. On a side note, I found interesting that expectations of RAs regarding professional development was not associated with any of the outcomes of burnout evaluated.

All these data were collected prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which significantly impacted the working conditions of a good proportion of RAs. What were the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the plethora of public health safety measures taken nationally, provincially, and locally, on our working conditions and our mental health? Some of us have worked from home full time since the beginning of the pandemic, others have worked remotely at least a portion of the time, while a few of us have continued to work at their usual workplace all this time. These changes certainly had an impact, positive or negative, on how RAs now perceive their level of burnout. Do you feel it has increased? If so, where does the pressure come from? Increased workload? Increased work pace? A decrease in recognition, predictability, or influence at work? All of the above?

On the contrary, some RAs report positive outcomes on their feelings of burnout since working from home, sometimes because they are less exposed to interpersonal conflicts in their work environment. Each of us is different. Each of us has their own motivations, values, situations, and limits. We must take stock of our most important pressure points, determine those on which we can have some measure of control, and act accordingly. This is easier said than done, certainly. Well-advised employers should seek to assist this process for their employees and try to identify possible root causes which they can influence themselves.

The benefits certainly outweigh the effort involved. For our mental health. For our overall performance and satisfaction at work. But, most importantly, for our own sake and the sake of our loved ones. Burning the candle at both ends, you may burn bright, but you will not burn for very long. Instead, I urge you to aim for the long slow burn. Have fun at work. Celebrate small victories together. Respect your personal time and the personal time of others. Pace yourself. Enjoy!

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