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28 May 2020
How academics in health sciences cope with stress

(Published - 28 May 2020)

Higher education is becoming a stressful occupation, research shows. And academics in health professions experience additional sources of stress related to clinical training. Yet these academics, working in fields like psychology, physiotherapy, occupational therapy and social work are expected to cope better with occupational stress, because they are required to have emotional intelligence.

To understand this better, we studied the relationship between occupational stress and emotional intelligence among health profession academics.

South Africa’s apartheid government created separate universities for different sections of the population. Institutions for students who weren’t white received the least resources and are known as historically disadvantaged institutions.

We did an online survey of 92 academics in the health professions at a historically disadvantaged institution. The response rate for the study was 55%. The survey measured demographic variables such as gender, race, highest qualification and academic status.

The survey used an emotions scale to measure characteristic emotional intelligence. This scale measures how emotions are perceived and used. It also measures how you manage your own emotions and those of others. The sources of work stress inventory was used to assess general work stress and stress experienced from other sources such as career advancement, workload and job security.

What academics had to say

Workload, the interface between work and home and general work stress were ranked as the top three stressors. The changes in higher education which include but is not limited to an increased focus on research as well as social responsibility have expanded the number and intensity of roles that academics take on. This increases their workload and associated stress. Students vary in terms of readiness and ability and academics must accommodate this variation to ensure student success. This leads to stress as academics are responsible for ensuring that students all achieve the same qualification even if some started their higher education at a disadvantage.

Academics have flexible work hours. Increased responsibilities translate into longer work hours, making it difficult to regulate flexible work hours. The increased use of digital platforms requires that academics acquire new skills and master software applications, as well as applying them to learning and teaching. The vagueness of flexible work and the changes in expectations and duties increase role ambiguity and, in turn, stress.

Our survey found that a lack of resources caused low levels of stress. We concluded this was because academics in historically disadvantaged institutions were used to having fewer resources.

Job security and career advancement caused low levels of stress. Academics in South Africa are appointed to their posts permanently after a probationary period. There’s a clear promotion path once academics become permanent. We found that academics from minority groups experienced more stress related to job security.

Women experienced more pressure balancing family responsibilities and work demands. Early career academics or recent appointees experienced more stress associated with adjustment. They may be unfamiliar with the organisation and their roles as academics.

Staff in junior positions experienced pressure to complete doctoral studies. Thus they found career development stressful.

Managing emotions

We found that health professions academics had the capacity to manage their emotions when stressed. The findings suggested that they could recognise and manage their own emotions and those of others.

The results provided empirical evidence for the assumption that academics in health professions are emotionally skilled. They can use emotional intelligence to regulate emotions under stress.

We found that women were more adept at managing anger, contempt and disgust at work. Men were more emotionally intense. They expressed emotion more often using nonverbal communication.

Academics from minority groups were more inclined to actively manage emotions in the work place. They manage their own emotions and those of others. Research about race and emotional intelligence is limited. But our survey results indicate that there is a tendency among academics of minority ethnic groups to engage more in self-management and management of the emotions of others when working in competitive environments.

The work/home interface improves when individuals are able to manage their own emotions. Thus being able to manage your emotions is positively linked to performing well in your job. Conversely, academics who did not manage their emotions effectively, were more prone to emotional exhaustion thus impacting their job performance.

Going forward

This study underscored the idea that gender, race and rank affect occupational stress. The findings support assumptions that health profession academics are emotionally intelligent. This ability helps them to cope with stress in the academic environment.

Acknowledging health professions education as a stressful occupation is important. The interplay between socio-demographic variables, occupational stress and emotional intelligence is key to developing appropriate management and support strategies.

Abigail Simons, a research psychologist at the University of the Western Cape’s Centre for Diversity in Psychological Practice, also contributed to the research and the article.

This article first appeared in The Conversation:, th