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Mind Matters: Stress, an Uninvited Lab Visitor

Scientific research may not have made Health Magazine's top-10 list of the most stressful jobs, but most scientists experience considerable stress--especially early in their careers when an unsuccessful proposal or insufficient research productivity

by Irene S. Levine
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Most workplaces are stressful, to varying degrees. In one survey, one-fourth of all employees said that they view their jobs as the number-one stressor in their lives. Another survey found that three-fourths of employees believe that on-the-job stress is greater than it was a generation ago.

Scientific research may not have made Health Magazine's top-10 list of the most stressful jobs, but most scientists experience considerable stress--especially early in their careers when an unsuccessful proposal or insufficient research productivity can bring a career to a premature end. Such work-related stress can damage health, but often the effects of stress become apparent only over time, damaging our health before we're really aware of it. It may take something more acute, like a serious health scare or accident, to show us, sometimes too late, what's really at stake. But waiting for a crisis isn't a good idea; it's vital to do what we can, right now, to maintain our health and prevent or forestall serious illness. And that means dealing with the problem of chronic stress.

Health Magazine's top 10 most stressful jobs changes from year to year, but a cross-sectional study of more than 11,000 people in a variety of jobs, conducted by German and Dutch researchers, identified what's at the root of most work-related stress: an imbalance of effort (too high) and reward (too low). Another finding states that the imbalance is particularly stressful for people who, like many scientists, are especially committed to their work. Losses to university endowments and state budget cuts are leading to layoffs and canceled faculty searches at many universities. Many companies, meanwhile, are also laying off workers. This brings additional work pressures and increases work-related stress, leaving many scientists, like other professionals, feeling like they're trapped in a pressure cooker. Some aren't even aware of the stress until they begin to experience somatic or emotional problems.


The stress response

Under conditions of acute stress, the biological response is hyperarousal. The sympathetic nervous system kicks in, creating a surge of stress hormones along with increases in heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and even blood platelet activity. In the fight-or-flight situations that caused these mechanisms to evolve, they helped an organism protect itself from extreme danger. But these days, for most of us, such extreme danger is rare. In the typical modern work context, this state of arousal, if it is prolonged, can compromise the organism instead of protecting it.

Good work is challenging by nature - but challenge isn't the same thing as stress. Job challenges are energizing and lead to satisfaction; stress is draining and demoralizing. Chronic job stress can even lead to injuries. One study suggests that 75% to 90% of all visits to primary-care doctors are stress-related.

Early warning signs of stress include headaches, sleep disturbances, difficulties concentrating, short temper, upset stomach, job dissatisfaction, and low morale. If you work hard and take your work seriously, an unexplained physical ailment could be stress-related. Long-term job stress has been linked to cancer and heart disease, the two leading causes of death.


Sources of job stress

 Job stress occurs when there is a mismatch between the requirements of a job and the capabilities, resources, coping skills, or emotional needs of the worker; the greater the gap, the higher the stress. Not everyone responds to stress in the same way; a situation that produces stress in one person might not produce it in another.

Respondents to an informal Science Careers Poll conducted last year highlighted some of the factors that make science careers inherently stressful:



Many scientists have mission- or ambition-driven personalities and work in highly competitive environments in which they are forced to "sink or swim." Because competition is keen, colleagues and supervisors sometimes compete with colleagues instead of supporting them, and some mentors are more concerned with their own success than they are with the success of protégés. It's not just a lack of support; there may also be backstabbing to garner or protect control of finite resources. "Some postdocs discover they are advancing the careers of their mentors instead of their own," says Sam Castañeda, director of the Visiting Scholar and Postdoc Affairs program at the University of California (UC), Berkeley.


Limited Job Opportunities

Stress also results from a dearth of future job prospects. Many perceive a "bottleneck" in the opportunity pipeline in academia because tenured positions are rare and senior scientists seem to be retiring older. Jobs often aren't available in places where young scientists want to live, a situation that's especially common for those whose partners and spouses are employed. Trainees often don't know about, or aren't interested in, alternative career paths that provide additional options.


Mismatch Between Job Demands and Rewards

Even scientists fortunate enough to secure positions find that they are called on to meet exceedingly high standards. Their jobs require tenacity and precision over long hours. Many science jobs offer inferior financial compensation compared with other fields. "Academia seems like a recipe for underpaid, overworked scientific martyrdom," said one respondent to the Science Careers poll. And scientists often don't see the results of their labor until far down the road. Supervisors, who often lack management skills, may add other demands that exacerbate stress.


Pressure to Succeed

Many talented scientists are required to bring in a proportion of their own salaries through competitive grants in a constricted funding climate--so their livelihoods depend directly on performance. Once funded, the pressure to publish, particularly in high-impact journals, is intense. Unless trainees develop a thick skin to cope with repeated rejections, these pressures often lead scientists to feel a lack of control, low self-esteem--even a sense of despair. And every young scientist knows that a failure to perform at this level means they probably won't make the next step, whether it be a tenure-track job or tenure.


Lack of Control

Scientists have limited control over their own research. The positive results they hope for can turn out negative. Their work may be stymied for months or years because they are unable to execute an experiment, for any number of reasons, such as too few subjects, methodology problems, broken equipment, or lapses in funding. Many trainees say that career success can be elusive, a matter of good luck and insider connections rather than a reward for hard work and performance. The "flavor of the month"--research topics hot with funders and hiring committees--can change quickly, said another respondent to the Science Careers poll.


Lack of Support

Many scientists, especially women, juggle career, family, and children with minimal or no support from supervisors and their institutions, adding another element of stress to their lives. Having to adapt to a strange culture--as most international scientists must--exacerbates the stress. "More than half of all postdocs in the U.S. are international," says Castañeda. "They face an 80-hour workweek; their median age is 32, so they're having kids; they face culture shock, language barriers, and miss their homes, friends, and favorite foods." International scientists also have to navigate a new health system, Castañeda says, and it may be the first time in their lives that they are holding a job.

When a postdoc from another country has to make a presentation to colleagues or at a professional conference, language and cultural barriers create added stress. Castañeda recalls a German postdoc in chemistry who arrived at UC Berkeley, which has a chemistry department that's rated first in the nation. The postdoc had been a shining star in his country, but he was feeling down and his work abroad seemed unsatisfying. "Maybe I made a mistake and can't compete," he confided to Castañeda. In addition to his scientific work, he was learning a whole new set of nonscientific skills: a new language and how to negotiate a new culture.


Stressing the consequences

 Stressed scientists often come to Castañeda to talk. "One student told me he was so stressed that he hadn't slept for a month," Castañeda says. Another student, from Sweden, told him that he was so fearful of the enormous power a faculty member wielded over his future that he was afraid to request time off. He worried about the consequences of being misunderstood by his faculty sponsor. "He is going to see that person at international conferences and meetings for the rest of his life," Castañeda observes.

Castañeda refers stressed-out trainees to the campus's ombudsman or psychological services so they can find ways to work out problems and manage stress. About a decade ago, there were three suicides at UC Berkeley--two postdocs and a visiting scientist, all from abroad--in the course of 18 months. Because the postdocs weren't considered employees, they were unable to make use of the university's mental health counseling services. Those policies have since changed.

Late last year, a postdoctoral researcher in the UC San Francisco urology department admitted trying to poison a co-worker by lacing her drinking water with chemicals. Interviewed by a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle, the police captain said of the perpetrator, "He won't give us a motive, but he claims he was stressed out at work.”

People often fail to connect the dots between their symptoms and the stress of their work. Even doctors may miss the signs. "It is a common misconception that if a symptom or disease is stress-related, it is all in the patient's head and not to be taken seriously," write Drs. Jeffrey Boone and Jeffrey Anthony in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.

Of course, stress isn't bad only when it causes illness. It's also a destroyer of the pleasures that a good life--and good work--can offer. It makes sense to take it seriously.