Special Issue: Mental Health in Academia - Peer-to-peer coaching: a novel way to tackle researchers’ stress

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Looking for a novel way to support your colleagues? We implemented peer-to-peer coaching groups, a method to tackle researchers’ work-related issues.

Stefano Zucca,

a personal account

Stefano is a neuroscientist interested in understanding how our brain integrates and uses sensory information from the outside world to guide our instinctive responses. He obtained a PhD in Neuroscience and Brain Technologies in Italy, at the Italian Institute of Technology. He did a postdoc in the department of Experimental Psychology at University College London (UCL) and he is now a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at University of Turin. In the past years he has been involved in activities aimed in raising awareness and promoting discussion about Mental Health in academia. In 2019 he became a Mental Health First Aider. In 2020 he developed and implemented at UCL a scheme based on coaching skills (PeerCoaching Group) to support researchers and improve their well-being. He has delivered several talks and workshops at national and international conferences speaking about stress in academic environments with a major focus on stressors among underrepresented groups in research. Stefano strongly believes in the importance of expanding and improving the dialog on academic mental health across all career stages in research. Only by acting all together will it be possible to build a better and more supportive research culture.

“…Suffering is seen as a badge of honour…”

These are the words of Cassie Hazell, lead author of a recent study reporting graduate students had twice as high a risk of developing severe anxiety compared to the general population in the United Kingdom (Hazell et al., 2021). The results perfectly match what was previously reported by other groups investigating mental health issues among academics (Levecque et al., 2017; Evans et al., 2018; Satinsky et al., 2021).

What makes being a researcher so challenging?

Recent surveys show that researchers experience recurrent and high levels of stress. Almost 40% of researchers globally and up to 60% in western countries experienced being overwhelmed fairly or very often (CACTUS Global Foundation, 2020). The working conditions are such that more than one-outof-two researchers have received or would like to receive help with their mental health (Wellcome Trust, 2020).

These data call for prompt intervention and for the development of new strategies to improve researchers’ well-being. Research institutions and universities usually offer counseling services to students and staff members. Despite being extremely important and useful, these services are often overbooked, and not always specifically developed or easily accessible for researchers. At University College London (UCL), we have implemented an additional supporting scheme to help researchers deal with work-related issues. Thanks to a collaboration with a group of scientists at Sainsbury Laboratory Cambridge University and the support from the UCL Wellbeing Team, we have implemented “Peer-to-peer coaching groups.” Researchers run this scheme for other researchers and rely on the creation of supportive groups to help each other by using coaching skills.

What is coaching?

Coaching is a process that aims to unlock a person’s potential to maximize their performance by developing realistic strategies to achieve specific goals. Coaching is based on a simple concept: each person has all the answers and skills required to deal with their issues and achieve their goals. The role of the coach is to help people find their own best solution. It differs from mentoring as a mentor gives advice and shares personal experiences, whilst a coach helps a person to define their goal and achieve it in their way. This approach is particularly powerful in academic environments, where people come from different scientific and cultural backgrounds.

What is a peer-to-peer coaching group?

A peer-coaching group is where researchers, who are the main players, learn and improve how to support people while sharing and discussing their issues. The aim is to create a supportive network for reciprocal help by applying coaching skills. After receiving basic training in coaching, researchers then manage the scheme by themselves.

To create a peer-to-peer coaching group, only a few steps are required:

- Gather volunteers: a stable group is fundamental, as the scheme relies on creating a safe space where people feel free to express themselves.

- Arrange a training session to learn about coaching and coaching skills.

- Establish a set of mutually accepted ground rules.

The group is now ready to start!

What does a peer-to-peer coaching session look like?

Each session follows a scheme that can be modified, depending on the group’s needs. The session starts with a check-in round, where each person briefly tells how they felt in the previous days, and if they encountered any issues at work. Participants are then split into small groups where everyone has a defined role of either a coach, a coachee, or an observer. The session lasts for about 40 minutes, during which roles can be swapped. The aim is to help a researcher set a goal and create a realistic plan to achieve it. Each session ends with feedback from the observers.

Implementing peer-to-peer coaching groups during the COVID-19 pandemic

In January 2020, we tested the scheme by setting up a pilot group. We first received training on coaching skills, arranged and developed by the UCL Wellbeing team, which consisted of a 4 hours session introducing the basis of coaching and training on active listening and the GROW (Goal, Reality, Options, Will) model. The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to switch to a remote version of the scheme, but we realized that online peer-to-peer coaching was extremely effective, especially in a scenario where social isolation became mandatory. Everyone in the group was able to apply and improve their coaching skills. The group ran for over a year, meeting every two weeks. Throughout the year, the group developed continuously based on the needs of the participating researchers. New members joined in and we introduced some mentoring elements, as we soon realized that many of the struggles were shared amongst the majority of researchers. We understood that the most powerful aspect of the peer-to-peer coaching group was to teach people how to listen properly. This made everyone feel heard and comfortable in sharing their issues. Shared issues and the plan to tackle them in a supportive group setting make the scheme effective, boosting everyone’s performance while improving their mental health.

Was the peer-to-peer coaching group useful?

To assess the scheme’s impact, we ran a short survey (unpublished data) among participants, and all members positively evaluated their experience in the group, finding it effective in reducing work issues. Everyone felt supported, and 80% of participants used some of the coaching skills outside the group. All members recommended the peer-to-peer coaching group scheme to support researchers. Some of them left anonymous comments on their experience:

“The coaching group has become a very important support in my daily life, especially during this period when our social contact has been reduced exponentially. There is something very special in knowing that there is a safe space where you can share your problems and know that you will get full attention, and very likely, potential solutions (or ideas for solutions) to your problem. Being able to discuss work-related issues has improved my well-being, which otherwise might have impaired my work.”

“It is very useful to create a safe place to share our experiences, and sharing itself is a large part of the support. I always feel more relieved and relaxed after the coaching session, either via helping others or receiving help.”

“I found the group useful for support when I was struggling with the workload. And also, from hearing about how others have the same problems (although that’s not technically part of the coaching per se). I think learning coaching and active listening skills will also be very useful.”

Conclusions

The peer-to-peer coaching group is now an official support scheme available at UCL. We created a dedicated website (Peer-To-Peer Coaching Group) with instructions on how to set up the group, resources on coaching, and a shared forum for UCL members to exchange opinions and suggestions. The scheme was officially presented during the Postdoctoral Appreciation Week in January 2021 and we now hope to expand the scheme beyond UCL.I believe in the need to develop different strategies to support academic mental health. Although support services are in place in many universities, their impact on researchers’ well-being is still limited. Research institutions and universities should prioritize creating supportive and healthy working environments, rather than only meeting academic metrics. I believe that improving the research culture will not just affect researchers’ well-being, but will significantly boost research productivity and quality. We have to stop losing talented minds because of bad work-life balance, high-stress levels, and poor mental health.

Stefano Zucca
MSCA Postdoctoral Fellow
stefano.zucca@unito.it
Twitter: @StefanoZucca5

References:

CACTUS Global. (2020). “Joy and Stress Triggers: A global survey on mental health among researchers”. https://foundation.cactusglobal.com/mental-health-survey/cactus-mental-health-survey-report-2020.pdf

Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., Weiss, L. T., & Vanderford, N. L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature Biotechnology, 36(3), 282–284. https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt.4089

Hazell, C. M., Niven, J. E., Chapman, L., Roberts, P. E., Cartwright-Hatton, S., Valeix, S., & Berry, C. (2021). Nationwide assessment of the mental health of UK Doctoral Researchers. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 8(1). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-021-00983-8

Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., & Gisle, L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46(4), 868–879. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2017.02.008

Satinsky, E. N., Kimura, T., Kiang, M. V., Abebe, R., Cunningham, S., Lee, H., Lin, X., Liu, C. H., Rudan, I., Sen, S., Tomlinson, M., Yaver, M., & Tsai, A. C. (2021). Systematic review and meta-analysis of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation among Ph.D. students. Scientific Reports, 11(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-93687-7

Wellcome Trust. (2020). “What Researchers Think About the Culture They Work In”. https://wellcome.org/sites/default/files/what-researchers-think-about-the-culture-they-work-in.pdf

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