Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (00:25):
Hey there and welcome to Psych Attack. I'm Dr. Jasmine B. MacDonald. Today I'm catching up with Dr. Marissa Edwards to hear about her journey advocating for better academic mental health and lessons that she's learned along the way. Welcome Marissa.

Dr Marissa Edwards (00:40):
Thank you so much for having me.

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (00:42):
It's a real pleasure. I'm excited to be able to make the time and share the important work that you're doing. So maybe we could dive in with a little background about yourself and you could tell myself and the listeners about your journey into academia.

Dr Marissa Edwards (00:59):
Thank you. So, uh, my journey, it makes me feel very old and very conscious of , the fact I'm now mid-career. But I guess to start at the beginning, I completed a psychological science degree with honors and I worked for a little while after that in a research role, a research assistant role, and then commenced my PhD in 2005. And I studied how people respond when they come across wrongdoing at work. So it was a real kind of exploring ethical issues in organizations, especially whistle blowing and employee silence. Mm-Hmm. Employee silence was really only starting to get attention in the literature just fairly recently at that time. Very new concept. So it was a really cool experience doing a PhD and connecting with researchers around the world who were studying this new topic. Whistle blowing had been studied for a long time, but not so much silence why people don't speak up at work.

Dr Marissa Edwards (02:01):
So completed my PhD was very lucky to do lots of international travel, present at lots of conferences. And I also did a lot of teaching during my PhD when I was a student and I realized I loved teaching. So once I graduated I stayed on the treadmill of sessional contracts, like casual contracts, fixed term contracts. And then finally I managed to get a continuing appointment in 2019. And I've been working at the UQ Business School. I've been at UQ all the way through. And I am now a senior lecturer in the business school. And I teach large first year courses. So I teach organizational behavior and I also teach ethics at postgraduate level. So I'm in a teaching focused role as well. So unlike your traditional academic position, I spend most of my time teaching and also doing scholarship of teaching research.

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (03:04):
And when I think about the time that I spent teaching first years in psych, that's huge. And some of these courses can be massive and the students are really enthusiastic and motivated, but they're very green. And so they need a lot of support. Yes. And I feel like to do it well, it takes a certain passion and energy to really do first year well because of the size of these courses. So respect

Dr Marissa Edwards (03:29):
. Thank you. I mean, I've been doing it for 10 years now without a sabbatical or anything like that. , I will be applying for a sabbatical next year, , because 10 years teaching large first year courses, it is definitely draining. And I think that you're absolutely right. You need a certain kind of passion and energy to be able to do it at a high level. And I think that we know that students not just, I think we know that students have changed, I would say, especially in the last five years or so. There are certain expectations that students have about the kind of education that they receive. And I think that the customer mentality has certainly permeated universities and maybe it's set up in high school, these expectations that students have. So it's demanding. There's a lot of emotional labor involved. Mm-Hmm. But at the same time, I think that first year students, there's often a lot of enthusiasm there. They're excited to be at university. And the course that I get to teach organizational behavior is really fun. It's organizational psychology and I manage to blend work from other disciplines in there as well. And you know, I really enjoy it and I have a fantastic teaching team. I should mention that I don't do it alone. , I have a team of tutors that I've worked with, I've worked really hard to keep them. Mm-Hmm. And to build a really cohesive, supportive environment. So I have a fantastic teaching team behind me as well.

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (05:02):
Mm-Hmm. Yeah. In the last academic role that I had, I was finding our first year team were getting comments like not entertaining enough . Yeah. Like customer service or entertainment aspect. And it's like, oh, without it being a full show on production, like I'm not sure you're gonna get someone more engaged or like enthusiastic than me up on this stage know.

Dr Marissa Edwards (05:26):

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (05:28):
Uh, so I'm, you

Dr Marissa Edwards (05:30):
Do feel like, yeah, you're on a stage and part of me says, yes, there is an entertainment factor, but at the same time there's a lot of energy involved in presenting that image and having that persona. And I think that there is a role for that. There's a space for entertainment and engagement, but you can't do that all the time. So we have to set expectations early with students. Yeah. They're not coming to see a stage production .

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (05:57):
No. Intrinsic motivation is a thing we want them to embrace. For sure. There is probably a fair bit in that introduction that we could start unpacking or thinking about the key topic today that we're focusing on around the wellbeing of academics and academic mental health. And I wonder if you would mind just mind talking broadly a little bit about academic mental health advocacy and what it is and why it's important.

Dr Marissa Edwards (06:23):
Yeah, I'd love to. So maybe it would help if I talked a little bit how I got to this point in my career. So I realized in that introduction it was quite broad as a teaching focused academic, as I mentioned, I do a lot of scholarship of teaching research. And part of that is looking at wellbeing of educators. And just from our conversation about teaching large first year courses along with the emotional labor comes a huge amount of stress. It is busy. There is a huge administrative load also with teaching. I'm sure other academics will relate to this. Often you don't have somebody to just step into your position or step in and cover your classes if you're sick, because there's often no one has knowledge of your course, knowledge of what's needed on a particular day at this point in the semester, even the content that you're delivering.

Dr Marissa Edwards (07:17):
Mm-Hmm. . I can't necessarily step into a marketing course and teach what my colleagues are teaching. Even a first year management, like a strategy course. I would have to do a fair amount of work to cover a colleague's absence. And the same goes for me in my courses. So I guess I became interested in academic mental health because I had my own experiences dealing with considerable stress and burnout. But I also saw a lot of colleagues really struggling. And I am not just talking about UQ here, I'm talking about colleagues at other universities here in Brisbane, other universities around Australia. Mm-Hmm. colleagues in the US in Canada, the uk. And a lot of my interactions with them, often on social media for my colleagues overseas, also in New Zealand, I should mention, I have an amazing colleague in New Zealand, and we often share our stories of how we are coping. I realized something was really wrong because virtually everyone that I talked to was running on empty. They were exhausted. I had colleagues who were taking extended periods of sick leave because of mental health issues. I had colleagues who were developing chronic fatigue syndrome. One colleague had a heart attack like in their late thirties. Mm-Hmm. This should not be happening. Yeah. Yeah.

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (08:42):
I had a colleague once, someone I looked up to as a mentor who became quite unwell and was hospitalized for a week. And they said to me that it was a joy because then they got a break from work and they hadn't had a break for work in a long time. Mm-Hmm. . And those attitudes of we can't rest or take a break and you have to keep working and the competitiveness. Or sometimes they're like, I work so hard, how good am I attitude that some people have? Yep. Yeah.

Dr Marissa Edwards (09:09):
It's toxic. You hear these stories of senior colleagues, and I'm not gonna name names, but at various universities, senior colleagues who go into hospital for a planned admission and you hear about them answering emails, sitting up in bed a couple of hours after surgery and sitting in bed literally on their phones, responding to emails. Or you hear about them sitting in emergency after an accident answering emails. Again, we are so connected to our phones. Mm-Hmm. , this is wrong. This should not be happening. Your health should always come first, not work. Yeah. So I think that's part of that really toxic academic culture. We are expected to be working all the time and it's wrong.

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (09:53):
Yeah. And you see that when you're doing your PhD or you see that when you're in your first academic role after a PhD, and then that's modeling. Right. This is what's expected of me.

Dr Marissa Edwards (10:04):
Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think that it starts during the PhD process. You're right, we have this expectation that we have to be working all the time, and that means outside of hours, weekends, et cetera. Because we are constantly under this pressure to publish and perform and win grants. And it just seeps into other academic roles that we're part of. And I think that early career academic treadmill, it's horrendous what people put themselves through. So yeah, I have lots of thoughts and lots of feelings about the culture that exists in academia today and the impact that it has on mental health. Hmm.

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (10:43):
And so for you, how did this shift into advocacy? You know, you're observing that these things are happening and you're seeing not only is it not just you, it's not just the people around you and your faculty, it's, you know, across the country it's international. Yes.

Dr Marissa Edwards (10:57):

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (10:58):
Because there are other options, right. There is like do something totally different. Like, because the system can make you feel like it's easier to just quit . Yes,

Dr Marissa Edwards (11:09):

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (11:09):
Or basically it's impressive that when others are trying to feign like, we're doing okay, we're pushing hard and like the room is burning down around us, but don't pay attention to it. You shifted instead to a framing of advocacy. So what did that look like?

Dr Marissa Edwards (11:27):
Thank you. Yeah. Nothing was planned. Right. Somehow I

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (11:31):
As if you would've had time to plan it. .

Dr Marissa Edwards (11:33):
Correct. , yeah. I totally had a 10 year plan written on weekends after midnight . Yeah. In all of my spare time, no, I guess I've always been really passionate about injustice. Like going back to when I was a little kid, like I didn't like seeing people treated badly. I've always been the type of person who would speak up when they saw something happening. If I saw people, animals, anyone, anything being treated badly, I would wanna say something. And I recognize that that is not always possible. Right. I wrote my PhD about whistle blowing and sometimes leaving and walking away from a toxic situation is a good idea. I don't wanna give the impression that it's always the right thing to speak up. Because certainly for a long time I didn't say something about various issues at work and in my personal life as well.

Dr Marissa Edwards (12:31):
But I think that I am the type of person that when I see something happening and I feel as though I can make a difference, I will tend to try and take some kind of action. So I was kind of towards the end of one of my contracts, I had several, I wrote an article about failure in academia and about normalizing the really painful emotions around failure at work. And I think in academia in particular, like we don't talk about our failures. We don't talk about all the things that have gone wrong. Mm-Hmm. All the times we applied for a grant and did not get it. All of the journal article rejections. Mm-Hmm. You know, that's generally something that we keep to ourselves. I think that we are getting better at talking about it. There have been more discussions I've seen on social media in particular of people sharing those ideas.

Dr Marissa Edwards (13:17):
But generally speaking, we talk about our successes. Right. And I got a really strong response to the article about failure. A lot of academics, PhD students wrote to me and said, it's really nice seeing you talking about this. And I wasn't necessarily sharing all of my own experiences. It was more just talking about the different ways in which we can fail in academia and the emotions that go along with that kind of at different levels of the organization. And on one level, I was a bit surprised that people were so connected to this article and it resonated so much, but it was also quite gratifying as well. And so I guess through publishing, maybe I wouldn't call that necessarily advocacy, but I was certainly giving voice to something that people generally didn't discuss. Hmm. And I found that people connected with that and people want to see their own stories in other people's narratives.

Dr Marissa Edwards (14:17):
They want to feel seen. They want to feel as though they aren't alone. I think that's kind of the key point that I'm getting to. That's the impression that I've received through doing a lot of advocacy work. Mm-Hmm. Because often when we're struggling, we do feel like we are the only person going through this. Yeah. And the reality is that we aren't alone, particularly when we're talking about things like toxic academic cultures, working ourselves into the ground, suffering from mental health and physical health issues. Everyone is going through it to some degree. We just don't talk about it. Yeah. So in terms of my journey to advocacy, I think probably the really key point was the starting point maybe is when I created the Voices of Academia blog. This is with my wonderful colleague, Zoe Ire from the uk. Those of you who follow Zoe on Twitter know that she's about to go on maternity leave, which is super exciting.

Dr Marissa Edwards (15:12):
But Zoe is really well known for her amazing advocacy work about the book that she's published for PhD students. And Zoe and I connected during the early days of the Covid Pandemic, I was sitting at home with my little dog in lockdown. And that was the only good thing about lockdown was getting to spend time with my pets. Mm-Hmm. I was sitting at home and I'd been sort of thinking about creating a blog for a while because in the article that I wrote on failure, I'd quoted from blogs and I'd actually opened the article with a quote, a really powerful quote, which was about an academic saying that, you know, the sense of failure, I think it was about a job rejection, the sense of failure was so profound that they felt that the only solution was to die because it was so overwhelming and it was so painful.

Dr Marissa Edwards (16:05):
And it was such a powerful quote. And I thought, we aren't really seeing those conversations in journal articles. Like there's a couple here and there. There's a really amazing article, an Autoethnographic piece about major depression that I was just reading last night actually that was published I think in 2002. We see occasionally people sharing their stories in journals, but it's not the norm, right? Hmm. Generally we're publishing research empirical studies, and we don't have that really powerful autoethnographic element. And so I thought, I think that a blog would be a good idea because people were struggling. You could see on social media, people were feeling lonely and disconnected and overwhelmed and very stressed. Also, I will say as somebody who was teaching during the early days of the pandemic, the stress was unbelievable. Like we shifted to online teaching. I'm trying to teach 701st year students online and it was unbelievable the workloads during that time. Mm-Hmm. .

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (17:08):
And the students are next level stressed as well at that time.

Dr Marissa Edwards (17:12):
Absolutely. It was a nightmare. Yeah. That first semester, like I just horrendous. And I'm sure faculty around the world will relate to that feeling of that first semester 2020 was just horrendous. And we didn't have a choice like we had to teach. Right. We had to somehow move everything online and keep delivering the material. But it was, yeah, huge. And I thought at this point a blog might be also not only a nice outlet for people to share their stories around stress and mental health in academia, but it would also give me a distraction from the incredible stress that I was experiencing at the time. And so Zoe, I know we were kind of messaging each other at Twitter and she said, yeah, I'm also really interested in creating a blog. And so we ended up creating voices of academia and it continues to be an incredibly rewarding experience.

Dr Marissa Edwards (18:06):
And I think that it has really allowed people around the world, PhD students, early career academics, senior faculty, it's given them an outlet to share their stories. And also, as I said, going back to that feeling of, they read a lot of the blogs that we post and we get emails saying, I thought I was the only one. Now I know I'm not alone. And that I think is just so powerful. So yeah, I think if that makes sense. The way I've described that, I was always really passionate about injustice. And then I sort of had this idea for this blog and was able to connect with my amazing friend and colleague who was also interested in creating this. And it's really from the blog and also just other opportunities starting to run workshops at universities around the world about how to address stress and burnout and having those opportunities to disseminate the research that I'm doing.

Dr Marissa Edwards (19:05):
Mm-Hmm. . So yeah, it's, as I said, not planned, but it's really exciting to be where I am right now and studying a topic and being able to connect with others around the world about a topic that I think is really starting to get a lot more attention. I've just finished writing a review of the research into academic mental health. And we knew, like even back in the 1980s, academia was an incredibly stressful profession. And then as time went on, as the neoliberal reforms and managerialism increased during the 1980s, 1990s in particular, the evidence is there. We know 20 years worth of research tells us that PhD students, early career, academics, postdocs and established faculty, everyone's struggling. But I think that it's only now that there's a real momentum and there's a real energy around, okay, here is the evidence, what can we do to solve this? Hmm. Very exciting to be at this point in time and studying academic mental health in universities today. Hmm.

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (20:14):
Yeah. And you had sent through to me just this recent findings released from a longitudinal study of what, over 6,000, not just researchers or academics, but professional staff in universities as well. Yeah. That yes is really highlighting everything you're saying of I think, what was it over the last four years and increasingly like reduces in psychological safety and increases in burnout every year for the last four years.

Dr Marissa Edwards (20:41):
Yes. This was research that it received a lot of publicity, particularly in the Australian media. It was was an Australian longitudinal study and it was looking at stress and burnout in university employees. And people are suffering like the levels of psychological distress, levels of burnout among academic. And I think it did also include professional staff. It's huge. Universities today, by and large are not providing a psychologically safe work environment. And I think that there has been a lot more discussion around psychosocial hazards in the workplace. And I think that we are getting to the point where there are gonna be claims against universities for not providing a safe work environment and safe working conditions. And unfortunately, I think that it might get to that point. I keep wondering what will it take universities to act? And I think I, I posted something like this on social media the other day because I looked at the results of this research and I couldn't stop thinking about it.

Dr Marissa Edwards (21:49):
I think it was done by a research center in South Australia that it was surveying staff across the country, university management know how much people are suffering. They know that people feel overwhelmed by workloads. They know that. I think the survey, I remembered this one, it was almost one in five academic staff had been harassed either via email or on social media by students. They know that people feel distressed, overwhelmed, burnt out, emotionally exhausted. And this is just one study in a long series of various research findings that have been reported. But this one I think is really powerful because it is a longitudinal study. Like it's just adding one more piece of evidence. Like what will it take universities to act? And as I said, the government may end up intervening, I think it was Alison Barnes from the National Tertiary Education Union who said that it may be time for the government to step in and actually take a regulatory approach with universities and require them to provide a safe working environment for employees.

Dr Marissa Edwards (22:56):
But I don't know where we're gonna go from here, but the evidence is there. Mm. And I keep thinking, will it take somebody to jump off a building for universities to take action? Because I think right now we are in this environment where if you speak up about what's happening in universities, if you talk about the unbelievable workloads that people are working under and trying to meet these unreachable performance targets, you know, I know colleagues who are working six, seven days a week. The attitude is you either accept it or you can leave. Yeah. And the reality is there is a whole long line of people who would be willing to step into your position. Because as you know, the Australian university sector is highly casualized. There are so many people looking, even for fixed term appointments. So university leaders, they know they have a surplus of staff.

Dr Marissa Edwards (23:54):
And if somebody doesn't like it, they can go. They have, you know, no reason to keep them because there will always be somebody else willing to step in and work those ridiculous hours. Yeah. But I think people can only do it for so long. And I think that, yeah, there's all kinds of ways we can take the conversation from here. Mm-Hmm. But I think that it's really on us as employees to say we are not gonna accept this any longer. And I think that the NTU said on social media, it's clear that university managers aren't gonna act. So it's up to employees. And I think that's a really interesting proposition. So we can talk about this more.

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (24:31):
Yeah. And you can't see this at home, but I'm sitting and I'm nodding through everything Marissa is saying, 'cause I've seen it and felt it myself. And so just thinking on that idea of employee management relationships and staff acting, right? Like if I were to share an experience with you and with listeners, my PhD and research area is in burnout, occupational stress and burnout. And I mean, that's kind of ironic of like , the stuff I was managing. I'm looking at these other occupational groups like nurses working in age care and journalists, you know? And Yes. And the 24 hour news cycle and looking at all these other groups and like academically knowing, and from a psych perspective, you know, clinical aspects, this is what burnout is, but it's over there. I'm not experiencing that here. , you know, like, because I was too busy to really be checking in with myself.

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (25:26):
Right? Yes. The example I wanna share is really to try to highlight that issue of the extent to which we accept, like what's the individual things that we could work on and improve, but not allowing that to be the whole focus, right. Of like, this is a systemic issue rather than a divide and conquer staff individually or academics individually aren't performing. So because of my training and expertise around burnout and occupational stress, I've had gone to a manager in an academic job I was in and said, look, this is what we have. We have this amount of workload. It's this many boxes. Here's the boxes I have in a week. Yes. Or in a month or in a semester. Yes. And it doesn't add up. I'm so chill in this conversation. I'm not emotionally distressed at all because I've learned to mask that .

Dr Marissa Edwards (26:16):

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (26:17):
. And so I'm so not distressed. And it's very much a logistic conversation. This is the workload we have, these are the resources I have. Now. Look, as my manager, has actually's been hard for me to come to you? I've spent the last three months working every evening and weekend and I still can't get it done. And I'm a pretty good performer. So yes, I need some backup. I need more resources or an extended deadline or a change of scope, you know, to not have a Rolls Royce version of this. Not that we ever have time to do that . And the response that I got was, you're a perfectionist. This is an issue for you. No one else is really experiencing this. Which I knew not to be the case because we talked to each other ly.

Dr Marissa Edwards (27:01):

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (27:01):
But the framing was, I was problematic. I was emotional and probably needed counseling from the employee assistance program. And look, to be honest, Marissa, personally inside, I did by that point, 'cause I was working so hard, but the fact that that wasn't acknowledged of, actually this is a logistical workplace workload issue, I just remember, you know, you're talking about justice before. I just remember being like, no, I've done everything I'm supposed to like for this to be a thing that now I'm the problem. Yes. Like I'm working really hard for you , because we've really bought into this the importance of research, the importance of high quality education for students. Anyway, long story short, I walk out of that meeting being told to go to counseling and with additional workload

Dr Marissa Edwards (27:47):
. Oh my goodness.

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (27:49):
And that was the point at which I decided maybe it was time to take a break from the university system.

Dr Marissa Edwards (27:55):
I am so sorry that you experienced this and I can absolutely relate. And I think that kind of response from a manager is so invalidating and to attribute the issue to a personal failing, rather than acknowledging the fact that actually this is a show. We are in a burning building. Like we are all just trying to put out fires with tiny little buckets of water.

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (28:22):
I would've respected that. I'd have been all right. At least we have comradery in that .

Dr Marissa Edwards (28:27):
And I think that's what, you know, the research shows as well. You know, even going back to the research around justice, even if we can acknowledge to each other that actually there is a funding crisis in universities. Everybody is being asked to do more with less. Yes. Workloads are increasing. Yes. Everyone's suffering. As an employee, I acknowledge what you're going through. I recognize it. What can we do if we can't solve the issue of workloads? What are some little tweaks that we might be able to implement to make potentially make this a bit easier for you? I mean, that's the kind of response that would at least help you feel somewhat supported. Because I think that yeah. You know, heads of schools and managers, often they, and this is not obviously speaking from experience, but often it's pressure from the central university that's leading to these budget pressures within schools.

Dr Marissa Edwards (29:17):
Yeah. And departments. And often these managers at this level can't do very much about it because you as an employee might be going to them and saying, yes, I'm struggling with my workload, but they have budgets to meet as well. But they could have at least acknowledged your experience rather than invalidating you. And I think that what you said there about how that was possibly a sign that you were maybe ready to leave and look for greener pastures elsewhere. I mean, that's what we see also in the research around when people speak up about problems in organizations. And workload is a problem. When people's concerns are dismissed, turnover happens. Quitting people decide that they're gonna leave. And managers need, I guess to recognize that, that they're gonna be losing, you know, people who are highly dedicated, really committed high performers. Because if managers are not gonna acknowledge at least your emotional experience and acknowledge your distress and recognize that it's not you, it's the system. But what can I do to support you? Is it any wonder why people do leave academia?

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (30:25):
Yeah. Yeah. I remember thinking like that. I think it's like a colloquial saying of like the definition of madness or out of like doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different response. And I just, yes. I think I'd had the same conversation way too many times with my husband and him being like, cool, so you know, you could still be a researcher and do cool stuff and not do that in university. Right. I'm like, no, I literally had never considered that. 'cause I was on this track, you know? And it was part of my identity. Yep.

Dr Marissa Edwards (30:56):
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And I think that's a really good point too around so many academics. We internalize all of our success and we see our identity as so closely related to the work that we are doing. You know, I see myself as a teacher, as a researcher, and I'm sure you know, you can relate to that. And to suddenly leave academia, it can be a real identity threat. And there's a real sense of loss and a sense of losing yourself if you go elsewhere. And who am I without my academic career? Hmm. But I do think that increasingly, I think academia is going to be facing a staffing crisis sooner rather than later. Because PhD students and early career academics are realizing that they don't have to put up with this, they don't have to accept these working conditions. They can go elsewhere. So I think that we are starting to see changes happen in that people are saying, I'm gonna do something else. I'm gonna prioritize my health and I'm gonna take Yeah. A research job in a different institution. Hmm. And more power to those people. If you wanna stay in academia, obviously, like I am part of that cohort who decided to stay. But people are increasingly seeing that there are other options that might offer them better work life balance and also better mental health. Mm-Hmm.

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (32:16):
. Yeah. And you make such a good point of, I think it's important to acknowledge that there are people who are doing the best that they can to stay in an academic role and to make the best of a challenging situation. And so as someone who is doing that, how do you do that? Marissa, what are your strategies for carving out the time that you need to manage the various priorities that you

Dr Marissa Edwards (32:38):
Have? Have? It is hard , and I have to say that it's getting a continuing position was life changing after being on a series of casual contracts and then sort of fixed term contracts. Once you are permanent, you have all of these strategies that you can use to protect your time. The biggest one for me has really been looking at all of the opportunities that I have, all of the opportunities for service. I think service is one of those aspects of our careers that just, it can just get bigger and bigger and we keep saying yes to things. Yeah. My biggest strategy I think is really learning to say no and learning how to prioritize what matters the most. For me, after several experiences of burnout, including a really unpleasant experience, which made me incredibly physically ill, it took six or seven months for me to get back to a point where like I felt like my mental health and my physical health was back to normal.

Dr Marissa Edwards (33:42):
Learning to prioritize what's most important to me and building everything around that. So for me, I get seven hours of sleep every night that is absolutely non-negotiable. And I give myself longer deadlines for tasks. I say no to lots of opportunities because I say to myself, I can either accept invitations to review papers, you know, you get those regularly. Or I can say yes and I can sacrifice my sleep and probably end up really exhausted and overwhelmed and probably open myself up to getting sick. I was looking at like my diary just a few days ago, and when I was an early career, like super early career, academic post PhD, I would get bronchitis, I would get colds constantly because I was so run down, physically exhausted. Yeah. Sleep deprived constantly. And for me it was saying to myself, I'm not willing to sacrifice my mental health and my physical health any longer and I need to prioritize for me at sleep.

Dr Marissa Edwards (34:54):
For other people it's exercise, I'm pretty active, but I had to choose, you know, the three building blocks of mental health are physical activity, regular sleep, and good nutrition. And I have to say to myself, like, I try and prioritize exercise and good nutrition, but sleep for me is absolutely central to everything. So I think it's hard, like I would feel guilty saying no because particularly, you know, some colleagues would say, I'm really desperate. I really need to find somebody to review this paper. And literally I will just say no. I will say thank you for the invitation, but I'm at capacity. Mm. And being able to say that not just with reviews, but with other invitations to take on projects as well. Yeah. That has just opened up so much more time for me and it's given me the time and the space in my life to do the things that I really care about. Hmm. So I know it sounds really simple, but literally being really strict with myself and saying, no, that has been life changing.

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (35:58):
At that, that's tough. That takes a lot of trial and error and heartache and exhaustion of going through really challenging times and making those connections and listening to your body. And you know, I think academics and researchers tend to be a lot in their heads, right. And think about things a lot and so can be quite kind of their own worst critic. So yes, I think that's simple, but it's hard work. And is it leading the witness here? for you? I guess I would just say for me it's like, I think the first time I had some of these realizations and trying to like say no to things and distance myself from stuff, it was like, I've had that realization now I'm never gonna have this problem again. . And then you slip into like, oh wait, my workload, I was really enthusiastic about this project, or I've kind of taken on too much. And you're like, how am I in this again? Oh, I'm human. Be kind to myself. Do I need to step away from this? What else could I say no to? You know, like .

Dr Marissa Edwards (36:56):

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (36:56):
Have you found that it's like it's cyclical or you have to keep reaffirming these things for yourself?

Dr Marissa Edwards (37:02):
Absolutely. That's such a good point, . And look, I've written about one episode of burnout in 2014 that I experienced and like six, seven years later, I was having yet another lying on the floor of my bathroom, bawling my eyes out because I was so overwhelmed and so physically sick and just saying to myself, why am I in this situation again? Also, I'm a mental health advocate. What have I done to myself by saying yes to all of these opportunities? So I think that's a great point. I don't want this to come across as though, you know, I just say no to things. Oh, it's all so easy.

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (37:35):
Oh, definitely didn't sound like that. . No

Dr Marissa Edwards (37:38):
. Well look, some days it is easier and other days, you know, I do feel that pressure. I mean, you always feel that pressure to say yes to things and take on more exciting projects and oh, I wanna apply for this grant because it would be so cool to work on this exciting research topic. I really have to pull myself back and say, what am I going to regret in 10 or 20 years time? Am I gonna regret working on a cool project or am I gonna regret the fact that I wasn't sleeping well? Which has implications for health down the track. There's a really strong relationship between dementia and sleep. I have a little bit of health anxiety myself, . So I'm really conscious of the fact that if you are consistently getting, I think it is six hours or less in middle age, so thirties and forties, you have a significantly increased risk of developing dementia in your sixties or your seventies.

Dr Marissa Edwards (38:34):
We know that things like Alzheimer's disease and you know, other health conditions, they often take a long time to manifest dementia. We know those processes in the brain start about 20 years before symptoms appear. Mm-hmm. And luckily I have a amazing friends and family around me as well who say, why are you saying yes to this project? What's that gonna do you to your sleep? Is that gonna give you enough time to, you know, go to Pilates on the weekend? And that's something I'm trying to find time to do as well. So I think that you are right, it is definitely a process and I think that we have to treat ourselves with more self-compassion and recognize that yes, sometimes we will end up overwhelmed, but I think trying to recognize we're doing the best that we can and maybe we can't do the right thing all the time, but if we're trying to do 70, 80% of the time, if we're getting it right and trying to manage work commitments and our family commitments and our health commitments and really just trying to overall do the right thing, I think that that's a good start.

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (39:42):
Yeah. Yeah. And it seems to me that part of that is the shifting from that hustle or sprint that you feel early on in your career. It's for a short time, I'm just gonna work really hard. I'll have friendships and I'll get back into sport or painting or these things that bring me joy, I'll get back into them later. I've just gotta lay a really strong foundation. And then you realize actually the way the brain works is that's a muscle and you flex that and now it's hard to switch that off and flex the rest muscle

Dr Marissa Edwards (40:08):
. Yes. Yes. That is so true. And I think one other thing that has really helped me is really looking at what I want from my career. In academia, we are surrounded by, you know, people who are these superstars who win all of the grants and get all of the top tier publications and become a professor by 40. And honestly, I look at some of my colleagues who have reached these milestones. You know, becoming a professor at 40 is pretty impressive, but what is the cost? I see some of these people on campus and they look exhausted. You can tell that their physical health has suffered and obviously I can't make assumptions about, you know, the effect that the hustle culture has had on them, but they look worn down and they look exhausted. And for me, I know that becoming even an associate professor, sure it would be nice, but if I can be happy in my relationships, if I can look after my physical and mental health, if I can be a good friend and a good partner and a good sister and you know, prioritize the things that I really care about, all of those accolades in academia, they don't really matter to me.

Dr Marissa Edwards (41:30):
Hmm. I've been quite vocal about this when I talk to people about academic mental health. It's important to work out what do you value? Because I think that often reaching the pinnacle of an academic career, it can be very hard, if not impossible to do everything. I don't know, a senior academic who hasn't had some kind of significant physical or mental health issue along the way to getting to the top of the career ladder. Mm-Hmm. Like, yeah, for me, I look at that and I go, I don't wanna be burnt out and a full professor at 50. I don't want that at all. I wanna have time to spend with my family and my friends. I wanna be able to take holidays, I wanna be able to do fun things, create memories. As you know, I went and saw Taylor Swift last weekend with my little sister . I wanna have time to do the things that to me really matter. And for me, that's really required me to go, what do I want out of an academic career? And for me, it's not about the titles, it's not about the accolades. Mm. There's so much more to life than being a super successful superstar academic, whatever a superstar is, I hate that term.

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (42:47):

Dr Marissa Edwards (42:47):
Term. So I think that people, it's really important that we think about what is most important to us. And if you don't want the star started academic career glittering with prizes and grants, it's okay if you just want to be, you know, good at your job and you don't have to do everything. Because often we feel like we have to do everything. We have to win all of these grants, we have to publish in top tier journals all the time. We have to have this amazing service record. It's about working out what do you want from your academic career and what's most important to you in life.

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (43:23):
That makes me really happy. , I'm applauding . I think some things that resonate there for me is the personal success indicators, right? Because if you're always working towards what means that you're a better academic or researcher or teacher in the perspectives of other people, those goals posts are always gonna move. And there's no end boss. You don't hit a point and you like reach this milestone and then you've actualized and now you're the ultimate academic. Right? . Yes. And one of my favorite things is minimum viable product. Like what am I trying to do? Where do I wanna put my energy? And how can I make this cool enough that other people will find use out of it and that's enough. I don't care if other people are gonna pat me on the back or give me an award. There were definitely times where I was like, that's what I gotta do. Just loving the job that I'm in, the role that I'm in and not thinking how do I get to that next rung on the ladder? Ah, yes. It's nice. I sleep better.

Dr Marissa Edwards (44:20):
. I love that. I mean, what's wrong with just enjoying the work that we do and being happy in the position that we're in and you know, being a good supportive colleague and having weekends off. Like is that not good enough? Mm-Hmm. We really need to look at how we define success. And I think that point that you made about, you know, there is this pressure always to get to the next rung of the ladder and always win the next award and always be successful in whatever area we're working in. Why can't we just be happy with, you know, 80%? You know, that's good enough. Mm-Hmm. I think, yeah, we are surrounded, I think in academia, we're all smart, we're all successful, we're all good at our jobs. Going back to what I was saying earlier, this sense that we don't talk about our failures. All we do is we see our colleagues talking about their successes. We have this real sense of imposter syndrome, which in turn kind of forces us to work even harder. Mm-Hmm. But yeah, I think that we really need to redefine what it means to be a successful academic. Yeah.

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (45:22):
And one of the things that I felt probably the most challenging was instances where I would see other people being successful and that that would be hard for me. It's like, oh no, you know, we are two different people and I should be especially be able to look at other women in academia and be like, heck yeah. Get it and like, and not feel a reference to myself in being able to observe that in other people. Yeah. There's a lot of really interesting internalized kind of problematic things socially, you know, across people, but internally as well. Yeah. I really appreciate this conversation Marissa, very much. And I think that even I can sit and I can listen and I know everything that you're saying is so right and so spot on and so consistent with my experience, but still also feel lots of things that you wanna hold inside or not talk about. And I guess I just wanna say thank you for openly having conversations like this and making time for the blog and being active on social media and finding yours and Zoe's and other people's accounts and the messages that you're sharing and the ideas that you're sharing has been something that was really useful to me and to other people. So thank you. 'cause that takes a lot of bravery. It's not easy thing to do

Dr Marissa Edwards (46:40):
, that's so kind. Yeah. Zoe and I, yeah. As editors of the blog. Yeah. We've published, yeah, well over 100 now and it is all unpaid work. You know, there's a lot of labor involved. Zoe in particular has just been incredible in helping keeping the blog going. Both of us. I wanna make clear that it's a joint effort. Yeah. It is gratifying knowing that we are giving voice to people's experiences. So thank you for saying that too.

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (47:04):
I wonder if you might have a bit of time for us to do that. Shameless self-promotion part. , do you have time for that?

Dr Marissa Edwards (47:09):
Yes, absolutely. Yeah. Look, I, I really appreciate the opportunity to share these ideas because sometimes I do feel like what I am saying, it's counter normative. I'm saying, you know, be happy with doing, you know, 80% at work and prioritize your time on weekends and make sure you get enough sleep and redefine your idea of success in academia. Like, and I've even said like in workshops and things, you know, I'm happy with where I am in academia. I don't feel as though I have this pressure necessarily to become a full professor. Whereas I think there is this expectation. So I appreciate the opportunity to present my counter normative view of prioritizing your physical and mental health in academic settings. You can find me at Twitter at Dr. Marissa Kate. I am also at LinkedIn and I am the co-editor of The Handbook of Academic Mental Health, which will be released definitely by the end of this year. We're hoping maybe around October or November. That is a volume with 30 chapters, an edited collection, incredible authors all around the world talking about their research into academic mental health. We also have some autoethnographic pieces. There's a narrative chapter that Zoe and I wrote that you mentioned, and that's a really exciting collection that we hope will really advance the field and showcase a lot of the incredible work that people are doing into academic mental health. That's

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (48:41):
Amazing. I really look forward to reading it. And for listeners, I'll put links in the show notes for the things that are currently available and so you can check these things out in your own time.

Dr Marissa Edwards (48:51):
Thank you so much.

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (48:52):
Let's wrap this up with, what do you do when you're not doing advocacy or research?

Dr Marissa Edwards (48:56):
Well, you already know how much I value sleep.

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (48:59):
Yoga, was it Pilates? Pilates and sleep? Those are good.

Dr Marissa Edwards (49:03):
Yes. I mean, I know it sounds, you know, people say, oh, building blocks of mental health. But truly if you aren't prioritizing or if you aren't, I don't wanna use the word prioritize too much. Sleep and physical exercise and nutrition are so important to mental health. So I do try and make sure that I get adequate sleep, that I do have opportunities for exercise and social connection's really important. So I always make sure that I make time for friends and family. Saturday nights are my time for family. Again, that is non-negotiable. I always make sure that I spend time with my dad and my sister and my partner as well. We try and have regular date nights, so having that opportunity to connect with other people is just so important. Things that I like to do. Also, I like to travel. I love traveling, so I try and take regular weekend trips.

Dr Marissa Edwards (50:03):
I have wonderful friends in pretty much every capital city in Australia. So having a break two or three days when I can fit it in around my scheduled teaching hours, I try and travel and I try and also get back into nature. Mm. So being near the ocean, I find that incredibly restorative. If I have a choice, being at an ocean pool in Sydney is my sort of preferred method of resetting and I just feel so restored when I'm able to Yeah. Have that experience where you're away from a screen that's super important. So yeah, I think I like to take naps to restore. I like to spend time with loved ones and also, yeah, traveling and connecting with nature.

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (50:51):
I love that. I love all those things too. We should finish up and we should do those things

Dr Marissa Edwards (50:56):
. Absolutely. The next time you're in Melbourne, right? Yes, yes. The next time I'm in Melbourne, we are going to meet and yeah, in fact in Melbourne last weekend. Amazing coffee. I love coffee. Yeah. Finding cute little coffee shops. That's also something that I love to do on weekends.

Dr Jasmine B. MacDonald (51:13):
Okay. Please hit me up when you're in town. I will. We'll have some coffee and explore together.

Dr Marissa Edwards (51:18):

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