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Supporting staff wellbeing

Wellbeing is commonly defined as the state of being comfortable, healthy and happy. In the workplace supporting wellbeing and mental health is important to ensure that all staff feel able to perform in their roles. This is good for them and good for you as their manager. 

‘We work more efficiently and more creatively when we are happy.

Maestre 2019. 

It’s important to remember that wellbeing is different for everyone. The way people cope with stress, difficulties and even success can be very different and will be expressed in different ways. Paying attention to your staff and their wellbeing is therefore important in your role as a manager. 

Wellbeing and academia

In recent years wellbeing has become an important topic in academia. Terms like ‘mental health crisis’, ‘toxic culture’, the ‘glorification of overwork’ and ‘hidden costs’ have become common in publications discussing the academic working environment. Mental illness in academia is on the rise (Maestre 2019). 

‘Researchers are much more likely than the general population to experience depression and anxiety... That is particularly true for members of under-represented groups, including women, non-binary individuals, people of colour, those from sexual and gender minorities (LGBTQ+) and students on low incomes. But they also affect senior researchers and scientists in different countries.

Hall, 2023. 

Research funders are also acknowledging the issue. UKRI has stated that the organisation recognises “the weaknesses of our current staffing model and its potential effect on staff health and wellbeing” (UKRI 2023). In 2020 the Wellcome Trust published the results of a survey of more than 4,000 researchers on their experiences of research culture, and the key findings were stark:


of researchers think that high levels of competition in the academic environment have created unkind and aggressive working conditions. 


of researchers have sought or wanted to seek help for anxiety or depression. 


of researchers have experienced bullying or harassment, whilst 61% have witnessed it.


of researchers feel comfortable speaking up about bullying and harassment, with many doubting appropriate action would be taken.

The extremely competitive environment of academia is well known and impacts the performance and mental health of staff within academia. To succeed, researchers at all levels of academia frequently feel like they need to become workaholics (Maestre 2019). 

Other potential stressors within academia include regular evaluation and benchmarking against output metrics, cyclical competition for funding, job insecurity and uncertainty, balancing multiple roles and the unpredictability of funding (Hill et al. 2022; Maestre 2019). 

“The secret to the success of being a postdoc and working in academia is becoming resilient about the insecurity and unpredictability of many situations.

Reader in Infectious Diseases, University of Liverpool. 

These stressors and the highly pressurised working environment have been shown to lead to poor mental health outcomes, including depression and anxiety, and are also thought to be responsible for the rise in research misconduct and fraud (Hill et al. 2022; Smith 2020). 

The academic role itself can even be a barrier to understanding the issues that this environment creates: 

They get you to torture yourself by making this work part of your identity — it’s not a job, it’s not even a career, it’s a life choice. And you buy into that for years until you figure out what it is. Take away a lot of the parts, make it more generic, and it’s just an abusive relationship.”

Eric Pellegrini, independent data scientist and former academic, quoted in Hall 2023.

Toxic research culture doesn’t just impact those already established in academia. Many managers receive little training in management and leadership, and some don’t value such skills, feeling that their role as a manager takes them away from their research. 

Compounding this is the fact that the academic environment rarely rewards group management and leadership, and larger research groups are sometimes viewed as better despite reducing the amount of time each team member gets with the group leader (Smith 2020). 

Postdoc wellbeing

The position of postdoc is felt by many to be the hardest step in the career journey of an academic. Where it was once seen as a brief stepping stone to tenure, researchers can end up stuck in a cycle of postdoc positions facing strong competition to get an academic role (Herschberg 2018). 

Postdocs face a number of challenges, often related to the challenges of obtaining new contracts, job security and a lack of career structure (Scaffidi and Berman 2011). Postdocs on fixed-term contracts can easily feel pressured into working longer hours and neglecting their wellbeing (AHRC 2022). 

There are no dedicated unions to protect the rights of postdocs and the casualisation of the research workplace can mean that if a postdoc doesn’t please their PI then they might feel that their contract won’t be extended. Hard work and long hours can suggest to others in academia passion for their jobs, but this results in those who don’t over work being seen as not caring as much (Smith 2020). 

This can help to create a working culture where everyone feels pressured to work longer hours, exacerbated by the feeling that the ideal postdoc is sometimes described as “someone who gives total priority to work and has no outside interests and responsibilities” (Herschberg et al. 2018). 

‘It is also worth asking whether this would be acceptable in other jobs. How would we feel about a surgeon operating unpaid because they are ‘passionate’ about helping their patients? In other workplaces, this would be seen as unacceptable exploitation.’

Smith 2020. 

These issues can have an even greater impact when postdocs area also managing caring responsibilities. Postdocs are often at a stage of life where they are looking to start a family or wanting to look after elderly relatives, adding further pressures on many postdocs. 

‘It is particularly toxic to those with responsibilities outside of work and can be fatal to their careers. [Researchers] who must care for children, elderly parents or sick partners find the expectations of long hours especially difficult to manage. Given that in wider society these responsibilities often still mostly fall to women, the impact of this on women’s career progression is obvious. 

Smith 2020. 

In the brief video below former postdoc Dr Hannah Roberts discusses the pressures she felt whilst taking maternity leave as a postdoc and how she was told to make it look on her CV as if the maternity leave had never happened.

Overwork is just one aspect of the academic environment and culture that can impact the wellbeing of postdocs.  

Supporting your postdoc’s wellbeing

Your relationship with your postdoc has a substantial impact on their productivity and experience in their role (Scaffidi and Berman 2011). Prosper’s resources for managers of researchers may be able to help you develop an effective and supporting working relationship with your postdoc

As their manager and team leader you can create a working environment that supports their wellbeing. You should also actively monitor the group culture within your team, as a culture of working long hours can make team members feel isolated or pressured (Smith 2020). 

‘If you can’t come in on weekends, don’t bother coming in at all.

Sign on laboratory door, quoted in Scaffidi and Berman (2011). 

The group culture and physical environment in which your postdocs work impacts their ability to work effectively and their wellbeing. 

Psychological safety

Psychological safety is key to the success of any team and is crucial for innovation and creativity. People feel psychological safe if they feel:  

  • Valued 
  • Appreciated 
  • Included 
  • That their contribution matters 
  • That they’re listened to 
  • That they have control of their work 
  • That they feel safe to speak up 
  • That they have permission to fail.

Consider how you want people within your team to feel and what you can do help them feel that way? For example, how would a member of your team feel valued? 

In the video below career coach Denise Chilton discusses psychological safety and the simple behaviours you can do to help foster it within your team. 


You aren’t expected to be a wellbeing or mental health expert, but knowing where within your institution you or your staff can turn to for help is important. Keep a list of weblinks, channels and networks saved somewhere handy so that you can access it quickly when needed. 

Unlike postgraduate students who typically arrive at an institution in cohorts (or at fixed times of year) and receive plenty of formal training and support, postdocs begin in their roles at different times of year and typically receive no formal development (Landhuis 2023). Postdocs can also struggle to identify and access development opportunities relevant to them (Scaffidi and Berman 2011).  

“It’s one of those weird stages where it’s really hard to have a community.

Dr Jonny Coates, postdoc at Queen Mary University of London, quoted in Landhuis 2023. 

This can leave postdocs feeling isolated and unsure of where important sources of information for them are and what opportunities might be available to them (Scaffidi and Berman 2011). 

Isolation can be a particular problem for postdocs, who frequently have relocated to accept the position and might be starting in a new location away from their established support networks of family and friends. This is likely to be additionally difficult for international postdocs. Visit the Supporting international postdocs page for further resources

Support your postdoc by ensuring during their induction you provide them with information about relevant postdoc networks or groups, as well as where to find information and development opportunities.  

You could even ask another postdoc within your department to act as a buddy to your new postdoc and suggest they meet monthly for six months. This gives your new postdoc someone to ask for information and helps them to feel less isolated when first arriving. 

Postdoc careers and wellbeing

Career worries are a major concern of many postdocs, who are facing either high competition for a tenured academic position or leaving academia. A lack of confidence, uncertainty about where to start and the demands of their research can all prevent postdocs from engaging with career development and allow their concerns and worries to build. 

As their manager you can help your postdoc to overcome the barriers that prevent them from engaging with their career development, and in so doing help to alleviate some of the pressures your postdoc is facing. Visit the Supporting postdoc career development page to access the resources. 

Your postdoc may also be applying for other jobs, including lectureships and fellowships, and may encounter knock backs or rejections. Failure is a fact of academia and resilience can be an important skill for your postdoc to develop. Prosper has resources for postdocs on managing failure that you can signpost your postdoc to. 

Upskill yourself 

Seek basic training – even if your institution doesn’t provide training in wellbeing or mental health support, you may be able to find online courses or seminar series that can develop your own skills (Heidt 2023). 

It’s increasingly common for research institutes to have mental health first aiders. These are members of staff who have volunteered and received additional training in identifying mental health issues, listening and communicating with those who may be experiencing issues, and understanding how to encourage them to seek appropriate help (Turner 2018). 

Does your department or institute have a mental first aider? Do you know who they are? Mental health first aiders should be at all levels of an organisation; are there any research group leaders who are mental health first aiders? Could you volunteer to be one yourself? 

Share your experiences 

Reluctance to engage with or discuss wellbeing or mental health issues within academia is one of the biggest obstacles in confronting these challenges. Help your staff to see that they are not alone, that there are others they can talk to, that there are paths of support that can help them. Share your own challenges if you feel comfortable to do so and what works for you, to help normalise an issue that impacts everyone to some degree or other (Rohde 2022). 

Some additional tips for managing a healthier research team

In 2019 Prof Fernando Maestre from the University of Alicante published ten rules for healthier research teams, that are well worth considering: 

  1. Promote the well-being of your research team 
  2. Let people set their own schedules 
  3. Gratitude is the sign of noble souls 
  4. Treat your researchers as your teammates – listen to, take advice from, and delegate work 
  5. Create a collaborative environment within your team 
  6. Remember that every researcher is unique 
  7. Respect working hours, public holidays and vacations 
  8. Give credit where credit is due 
  9. Destigmatise failure and celebrate success 
  10. Promote the professional development of your researchers 

Supporting your own wellbeing

Whilst the situation many postdocs face can lead to poor wellbeing, you also face a lot of challenges that exert pressures on you. Some of these are the same as for your postdoc and some are unique to the role of tenured academic and can impact academics at all levels of seniority (Heidt 2023).  

For instance, you may spend your time worrying about how to find funding to keep your postdoc in their position for longer, how to find enough funding to keep your whole team employed, how to help someone on your team who’s struggling and countless other challenges. And you might not have received any formal training to help you with any of the challenges you’re juggling (Mahtani 2018). 

“Put your own oxygen mask on first.

Hilary Clarke, Organisational Developer, University of Liverpool. 

Look after your own wellbeing. It's easy to forget as a leader and a manager to pay attention to your own wellbeing, but neglecting yourself isn’t good for you, your research or your staff. You can’t look after someone else’s wellbeing if you aren’t well enough yourself. 

“There’s a false idea in some academic circles that investing in a researcher’s well-being takes away from their productivity, but if you’re not doing well, you’re not at the top of your performance — and you’re not able to give to your students.

Prof Hilal Lashuel, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, quoted in Heidt 2023. 

In the brief video below, Organisational Developer Hilary Clarke discusses the importance of looking after your own wellbeing and the levels at which you can assess your wellbeing needs. 

Prioritise effectively 

As a manager within academia it’s easy to deprioritise yourself, supporting your team and failing to look after your own needs. You might feel like you need to respond to an email or review some work immediately even though its outside of normal working hours. You might work all weekend to write a funding application to extend your postdoc’s contract. 

“You end up putting yourself on the back burner often, which you shouldn’t do, but it’s hard not to when there are people relying on you.”

Prof Christine Le, York University in Toronto, Canada, quoted in Heidt 2023. 

Be aware of your own priorities. There is only so much time in the working day, and you need to ensure that you have a healthy work-life balance and are looking after your own wellbeing.  

Whilst aimed at how you can support your postdocs, the Prioritisation and productivity page discusses the importance of regularly auditing your priorities to help you assess which things are important for maintaining a balance that will help your productivity and maintain your wellbeing.

Set boundaries 

The pressure to respond to an email in the evening or stretch yourself to help your postdoc can be overwhelming.  

Setting boundaries is an essential step for keeping balance in life and maintaining your priorities. Manage the expectations of your postdocs about your time from the early stages of their contract. You have a lot of different responsibilities and they shouldn’t expect an instantaneous response to an email, or for you to drop everything to have a meeting. By setting clear boundaries and expectations you will support your own wellbeing and your postdoc will be more comfortable in knowing what is expected of them as well. 

You can find out more about setting boundaries, including simple tools to help you set boundaries, on the Prioritisation and Productivity page.

Lead by example 

One of the most effective ways in which you can support the wellbeing of your staff and students is to lead by example. This has the added benefit of helping to protect your own wellbeing as well. The following quote, whilst discussing the sciences, is relevant to PIs in all disciplines:

‘Even for a principal investigator who does not work in a laboratory, of course they have the freedom to spend their spare time on work if they wish, but it is important that this behaviour is not set as a benchmark for the way in which all scientists should be performing. It is even more vital that such individuals do not consciously, or unconsciously, imprint this as an expected model of working on the teams of early-career researchers they manage. 

Smith 2020 

There are plenty of small things you can do to demonstrate the importance of looking after yourself to your staff, including:

  • Recognising small wins – recognise and celebrate when things go right for you and for your staff. 
  • Normalise failures – failure is a frequent occurrence in academia, from a grant application being unsuccessful to a research paper being rejected. Discuss your own failures with your staff and students, help them (and you) to recognise that failures are often valuable learning experiences. As Organisational Developer Hilary Clarke says: “There is no failure, only feedback.” 
  • Get out of the office – ensure you have a life outside of work, and that your staff and students are aware of that. Encourage regular breaks during the day, don’t limit conversation to just work topics and take walks or go to the gym over your lunch break. 
  • Ensure that your team’s offices or laboratory spaces are inclusive and do not have any pictures or messages that promote unhealthy working practices. Even jokes such as ‘it must be nice to take a holiday’ or ‘academia is flexible - you can choose which 16 hours of the day you work’ can glorify and normalise overworking (Mittelmeier 2023). 
  • Take time off and don’t work during your leave. 

You are not alone

Discussing the challenges you face with others has many benefits: 

  • It can prevent you from bottling up your feelings 
  • It may provide you with a different perspective 
  • You might hear from someone who’s been through a similar experience and learn from what they did 
  • You might discover avenues of support within your institution you were previously unaware of.   

Staff networks can be a great place to start and many research institutions have networks catering to a wide range of people and needs.  

Mentoring is also an incredibly effective way of sharing experiences with others and getting advice. Mentoring can be done on a one-to-one basis or in a group. Participants can be peer-to-peer or there could be one more experienced mentor and one or more mentees.  

Does your institution have mentoring schemes or staff networks that you could join? If there is nothing that meets your needs, could you set something up yourself?

Further resources

The Mental Health Foundation Guide for supporting mental health at work: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/explore-mental-health/publications/how-support-mental-health-work 

The Mental Health At Work website has resources and toolkits for supporting wellbeing in the workplace: https://www.mentalhealthatwork.org.uk/ 


AHRC. 2022. AHRC guidance on training and developing early career researchers in the arts and humanities. Accessed 16/06/2023: https://www.ukri.org/publications/guidance-on-training-and-developing-early-career-researchers-in-the-arts-and-humanities/.

Hall, S. 2023. A mental-health crisis is gripping science — toxic research culture is to blame. Nature, 617, 666-668. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-023-01708-4.

Heidt, A. 2023. Heeding the happiness call: why academia needs to take faculty mental health more seriously. Nature, accessed 16/06/2023: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-023-00419-0.

Herschberg, C., Benschop, Y. & van den Brink, M. 2018. Precarious postdocs: A comparative study on recruitment and selection of early-career researchers. Scandinavian Journal of Management, 34(4), pp303-310. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scaman.2018.10.001.

Hill, N.T.M., Bailey, E., Benson, R. et al. Researching the researchers: psychological distress and psychosocial stressors according to career stage in mental health researchers. BMC Psychol 10, 19. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40359-022-00728-5.

Landhuis, E. 2023. To diversify the scientific workforce, postdoc recruitment needs a rethink. Nature 618, 201-203. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-023-01740-4.

Lashuel, H.A. 2020. The busy lives of academics have hidden costs — and universities must take better care of their faculty members. Nature, accessed 16/06/2023: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-00661-w.

Maestre F.T. 2019 Ten simple rules towards healthier research labs. PLoS Comput Biol 15(4). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1006914.

Mahtani, K.R. 2018. What makes an academic leader? Nuffield Department of Primary Health Sciences, University of Oxford. Accessed 16/06/2023: https://www.phc.ox.ac.uk/about/staff-stories/what-makes-an-academic-leader.

Mittelmeier, J. 2023. The Glorification of Overwork in Academia and its Impacts on our Collective Wellbeing. Voices of Academia. Accessed 16/06/2023: https://voicesofacademia.com/2023/03/31/the-glorification-of-overwork-in-academia-and-its-impacts-on-our-collective-wellbeing-by-jenna-mittelmeier/.

Rohde, P. 2022. Leading by Example: Living with Mental Illness in Academia. Voices of Academia, accessed 16/06/2023: https://voicesofacademia.com/2022/05/27/leading-by-example-living-with-mental-illness-in-academia-by-dr-peter-rohde/.

Scaffidi, A.K. & Berman, J.E. 2011. A postivie postdoctoral experience is related to quality supervision and career mentoring, collaborations, networking and a nurturing research environment. Higher Education, 62, 685-698. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-011-9407-1.

Smith, D.K. 2020. The race to the bottom and the route to the top. Nature Chemistry, 12, 101-103. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41557-019-0410-y.

Turner, J. 2018. Why I became a mental-health first-aider at my research institute. Nature 563, 433. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-07358-1.

UKRI. 2023. UKRI people and teams action plan. Accessed 16/06/2023: https://www.ukri.org/publications/ukri-people-and-teams-action-plan/.

Wellcome Trust. 2020. What researchers think about the culture they work in. UK: Wellcome Trust. Accessed 16/06/2023: https://wellcome.org/reports/what-researchers-think-about-research-culture.

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