Mental Health at Top Performance

By Raed Hmadi

On the 20th of April 2018, the Max Planck Society offered a one-day workshop titled “Mental health at top performance - Stress management for doctoral researchers” as part of the Operational Health Management project. The workshop took place at the society’s Administrative Headquarters in Munich, Germany, and was conducted by Mrs. Judith Bergner.

“To go beyond is as wrong as to fall short” Confucius, 551 BC

May is the awareness month for mental health.
Image by Matthew HK Cheng.

A large number of individuals suffer from mental health disorders, ranging from anxiety and burnouts to depression and substance abuse. A recurring theme of discussion and debate is mental health at the workplace, especially for academic employees such as doctoral and postdoctoral researchers. The aforementioned workshop began by highlighting some key statistics about depression. In fact, depression affects more than 300 million people globally, impacting more women than men. In Germany, around 8 million employees suffer from exhaustion or anxiety disorders (Ärzteblatt vom 23. Februar 2017, WHO: Millionen leiden an Depressionen) with different symptoms, such as insomnia, heart attacks, etc. Remarkably, countries with powerful, leading economies report higher percentages of people suffering from anxiety disorders, depression and burnouts. The burnout syndrome can be defined in 3 dimensions: Relationship to others, the self and work. Each dimension is characterised by different symptoms. When it comes to relationships with others, people suffering from burnouts show feelings of indifference and lack of empathy. To themselves, they exhibit irritability and tension. Workwise, lack of self-efficacy and losing sense of purpose are frequently reported.

The burnout phenomenon can be influenced by many factors, such as cultural value systems (competition), work environments (bad leadership), and individual traits. For example, traits that increase the risk of exhaustion include success-orientation and competitiveness, perfectionism, sense of personal indispensability, etc. In addition, the digital transformation and globalisation of our world has greatly impacted our societal values, encouraging “individualism”. The latter created several dilemmas at the individual level, like autonomy and independence vs. attachment and a sense of belonging.

Throughout the workshop, Mrs. Bergner suggested several guidelines and techniques to the attendees on how to maintain a balanced and healthy lifestyle. First, she explained how to use the brain resourcefully by understanding the different aspects of the human brain (right vs. left hemispheres). The left hemisphere, responsible for the “state orientation”, is involved in rational thinking and analyses, whereas the right hemisphere, responsible for “action orientation”, is involved in instincts, memory, and intuitions. Proper communication between both hemispheres is indispensable for an attentive mind free of exhaustion or stress. Second, she highlighted the importance of energising the spirit by finding balanced self-motivation and self-management, resulting in coherence and inner balance. Furthermore, she suggested different activities that doctoral students can perform regularly, such as practicing mindfulness, setting up achievable to-do lists, avoiding over-commitment, and remembering the big picture and the reason they entered academia in the first place (passion for their field of research, freedom, flexibility). Mrs. Bergner also carried out various exercises that helped the doctoral researchers engage more in relaxing activities, setting the right priorities, and coping with negative emotions. For example, each doctoral researcher had to choose one picture from a set of various pictures that he/she felt connected to. Afterwards, they shared and discussed the personal meaning of the picture, focusing on its rational and emotional depths. The exercise aimed to clarify the need to look at the bigger picture sometimes, and to enjoy the small cheerful things in life when work gets stressful and hectic. Another exercise the doctoral researchers performed was listing issues that cause stress (thesis writing, preparing presentations, conflicts with colleagues, etc.), followed by the action needed to solve them and the amount of energy released afterwards (on a 100 units scale). Doing this exercise on a regular basis can help doctoral researchers prioritize achievable aims and encourages them to finish their work without stress.

In conclusion, mental health at top-performance jobs remains a crucial topic that requires effective measures in order to reduce stress and encourage a balanced life, especially when it comes to doctoral researchers. However, discussing mental health is the first step in the right direction. If you would like to get more information about the workshop, you can contact the instructor (bergner@skillfactors.de) or The Offspring team.

Here's what two attendees had to say of the workshop:

"I really liked how the workshop 'Mental health at top performance' focused on stress management and burnout topics that many people suffer from during academic life. Unlike other workshops that require sitting in a room for long hours, it was really fun with small sportive games and outdoor exercises that prevent being overwhelmed and help to regain attention. The instructor was very experienced and talented, and provided a broad mindset and useful tips to tackle stress and burnouts. I recommend everyone to join this workshop and adapt those tips in their working life, because mental health is as important as your career!" 

Öyküm Kaplan, PhD Student, Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine, Department of Molecular Neurobiology, Göttingen

"The 'Stress management for doctoral researchers' workshop was a real eye opener and a great opportunity to reflect on my own mental status. We learned about the basics of stress and burnout and their symptoms, which are often neglected by many students. Theory was followed by practical exercises giving us immediate ideas on how to keep our sanity in check.
I would totally recommend it to every doctoral researcher who feels stressed - take one day off from your everyday routine and attend the workshop, you might realize many things about yourself and learn how to deal with stressful factors in your life."

Katarzyna Duda, PhD Student, Max Planck Institute for Immunobiology and Epigenetics, Department of Epigenetics, Freiburg im Breisgau

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