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Dealing with Presenteeism and Peer Pressure in research and academia

The waters of academia are riddled with uncertainty. As positions in academia become more and more competitive, and contracts become shorter, a lot of emphasis is being increasingly put on researchers to come across as hardworking and diligent. This is a problem that has plagued academia for a long time, as research and teaching are more of labours of love than they are a straightforward 9-to-5 job, often resulting in long hours, working on weekends and holidays, and increased stress levels among academics. Combine this with the constant pressure to publish in high-impact journals, and you have a perfect storm of erratic stress and emotion which can very easily lead to burning out.

Presenteeism in research and academia

Presenteeism is the practice of working through periods of physical or mental illness. It is a hugely problematic habit, not unique to academia, but almost ubiquitous to high-pressure environments in general. It could require a conscious effort, where you knowingly ignore your wellbeing for fear of appearing lazy or unproductive to your managers. Or it may involve unconscious efforts, where you may not even be aware you’re doing it because your baseline wellbeing is so diminished due to your self-imposed, high workload. The insult to injury is the fact that while you may think that you’re being more productive, it is clear that the quality of your work will suffer if you are not in good enough health – physically or mentally – to give 100%. 

Peer pressure for researchers and academics

Presenteeism and peer pressure go hand in hand. This might present itself in a few ways. For one, you may feel pressured to work longer hours because your colleagues are (or seem to be). Sometimes, researchers, especially PhD students, tend to wear their long hours as a badge of honour, perhaps in an effort to impress their principal investigator (PI). This may make you feel as though you are not doing enough by comparison. Another side of this is putting your self-care second by being pressured into engaging in social events with your colleagues that, in truth, you may not want to be a part of.

Managing presenteeism 

The first step to battling attendant pressures of the academic workplace is to have an open, honest discussion with your line manager (for example, your PhD supervisor or the PI of your project). This will help you to understand their expectations and help them to understand your limits. Having these conversations is particularly important because in most cases, workers tend to imagine their managers’ expectations to be unachievably high, and this just is not the case. Your managers are equally as human as you are, and will understand that your wellbeing needs are important and that addressing them will ultimately make you a more productive person.

Responding to peer pressure

Managing peer pressure can be surprisingly more difficult, because it can feel as though you are jeopardising your standing amongst your peers and your working relationships. It is important to remember, though, that your own wellbeing should come before your worries about how you are being viewed by your peers.

Finding the confidence to resist peer pressure is key. So, just know that your own time, i.e., your time outside of your contracted hours, is yours, and that you are entitled and free to do what helps you to address your needs and look after your wellbeing. Indeed, it is acceptable to want to disconnect from the workplace by not joining in on a social occasion, and it is also okay not to work longer hours than is necessary. Do what you can within your limits, and you’ll find that by switching off when you can, your efficiency and productivity will increase.

End notes

Researcher wellbeing is a constant point of discussion in academia, and is one that is of particular importance as it is becoming less and less desirable to be an academic due to the changing landscape of how research is funded, conducted and handled by larger organisations. That being said, being an academic researcher is a huge privilege, and you should be allowed to enjoy it. So, make sure that you take your wellbeing seriously and help yourself be a better researcher by being honest with yourself and others.


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