(Commentary) Workplace well-being within ecology and conservation academic circles in India

  • Workplace harassment and wellbeing are indeed two ends of the spectrum – a spectrum that encapsulates how our everyday workplace affects our state of mental and physical wellbeing.
  • Surveys in other countries have shown that stress levels from an intense workload and other factors contribute to a low wellbeing score within academia.
  • In this commentary, Sandhya Sekar describes results from a first of its kind pilot survey about workplace wellbeing within ecology and conservation circles in India.
  • The pilot survey is intended as a basis for a large scale survey that can provide numbers needed for policy-level changes in academic organisations.

It is 226 and counting.

That is the number of respondents to a survey about workplace well-being and harassment in environment and conservation academic circles. The survey was circulated during the Student Conference on Conservation Science (SCCS 2018) at Bengaluru. The message was spread using a couple of announcements, by word of mouth and without much ado on social media.

The response we received to this initial survey has been eye-opening to say the least.

The key question of our survey, “have you had a negative interaction during your work” – had 27 individuals (11 percent) respond that they had regular negative interactions, and 105 (46 percent) saying they had negative interactions sometimes. Overall, more than half (58 percent) of the respondents had experienced negative interactions (to varying extents) in the workplace.

This survey had both males and females reporting workplace harassment almost equally.

For the purpose of this survey, we adopted the WHO definition of harassment at the workplace: Any act at workplace by your supervisor, colleagues and administration that jeopardise your physical, mental and social well-being. The terms used were clarified at the start of the survey document.

Another 45 of the respondents (20 percent) were not sure if what they had was indeed a negative interaction — indicating a lack of understanding and a possible ignorance about workplace harassment within ecology/conservation academic circles in India. Or even what constitutes harassment in the first place. Given the kind of learning environments a majority face at the school level in the country, there is the prevalent baggage of often only listening to and not having the confidence or indeed agency to question an authority figure.   

A snapshot of the results from the final survey. Image by Kartik Chandramouli / Mongabay. *Note: In the second graph, Others denotes individual responses that were not included in the analyses.

A cause for immediate concern is that 76 out of the total 133 (57 percent) who had experienced negative interactions, chose to not take any action or address the issue.

Four took the step of leaving the workplace entirely. This number may seem small, but we must bear in mind that this survey was circulated among a crowd (and a small sample size) of mostly current student practitioners. Moreover, if a researcher is driven to this extreme step — leaving a programme which they must have applied with such hope, because of a hostile work environment — four is a high enough number.

The harassment to well-being spectrum

TheWorld Health Organisation (WHO) defines workplace well-being as a “positive state of complete physical, mental and social well-being.” Any act at workplace by the supervisor, colleagues and administration that jeopardises one’s physical, mental and social well-being is classified as harassment.  

Workplace harassment and well-being are indeed two ends of the  spectrum – a spectrum that encapsulates how our everyday workplace affects our state of mental and physical well-being. An integral component to workplace welfare is the grey zone between the two ends of the spectrum. When is an otherwise straightforward and seemingly professional interaction become harassment? Or indeed, when can it be construed to be negative, and who decides this?

I have been having conversations on this topic with multiple people, both faculty members and students at different stages of their research career, and there seem to be so many factors at play: the mental state of both parties involved, the expectations with which either party enters into the relationship, the academic setup itself and its pressures, to name a few.

Redressal in an academic setup

If within an academic/institution setup, a student feels like their well-being is compromised, what can be done? Results from this survey shows that about 57 percent of the respondents who had experienced negative interactions, did not take any action. Only 39 out of the 133 knew about conflict resolution mechanisms in their institutes, and of these 39, only 19 used the resolution mechanism to obtain redressal.

Among the respondents, 12 actually said they approached a committee, and the process seemingly worsened the situation; eight were not happy with the resolution, while other committees buried the issue by delaying the resolution.

Tellingly, 54 of the 133 who had negative interactions (40 percent) had these with their supervisors/mentors and 49 (36 percent) with colleagues or lab mates. Anecdotally speaking, all of us involved in the survey have heard from researchers facing harassment not willing to take up the issue with concerned authorities, because of the inherent imbalance of power that is characteristic of academia. “My supervisor needs to sign off on my thesis”, “my supervisor needs to write recommendation letters for me” are common statements, which unfortunately ring true in the academic context.

A large number of negative interactions seem to be with colleagues and supervisors, who make the immediate work environment, according to this survey. Image by Kartik Chandramouli / Mongabay.

Starting conversations

This short survey was intended as a pilot to get a sense of the scale of the problem. All five us who are part of the team conducting the survey had heard multiple anecdotes and come across many researchers who have undergone traumatic experiences in their academic workplace. We thought the conference presented an unique opportunity for us to formalise what we’ve heard into numbers that can potentially inform policy. The conference also took place at a time when popular media at both national and international levels were discussing workplace wellbeing, sexual harassment and related issues.

Since the survey was circulated during a conference held in Bengaluru, most of our respondents are from the northern and southern states and based out of a select few institutions. Despite these shortcomings, these initial trends  have made us realise the scale and seriousness of the situation: the question remains about how widely and commonly prevalent the issue is in India’s ecology and conservation academic circles.

We believe that we require more data about this issue from an Indian perspective. Workplace well-being within academia is a grave problem in many countries. For example, a large scale study of 14,000 higher education academic and academic-related staff in the UK conducted by the University and College Union (UCU) concluded that stress levels from an intense workload were considerably higher within academia. Within a range of 1.00 to 5.00, where 1.00 was highest stress/lowest well-being and 5.00 lowest stress/highest well-being, the average for UCU members surveyed was 2.51, compared with 3.65 for the (non-academic) British working population.

To address this further, we plan to circulate the survey to a wider audience (within the environment/conservation circles) that can encompass a wider geographic spread and include people in different stages of their research career.

We think the larger survey that we are planning can provide us valuable numbers to start conversations about the following:

What is harassment in an academic setup? Who draws the lines between rightful workplace expectations and harassment?

Who would decide what is harassment when a potential situation comes up?

What would be the most appropriate redressal mechanism and who would direct it?

We would also like to use this opportunity to invite readers to write in with any information they may have on the subject: any redressal mechanisms that have worked in their own work spaces, mechanisms that have failed, possible suggestions for what might work. We would like to compile such information from multiple sources, including documenting how students and faculty are made aware of these mechanisms. We hope that these resources in addition to the survey results will make institutions take up these issues seriously and put in place effective systems to address workplace harassment.

That being said, we feel from our interactions and the survey that the best place to start with addressing a widespread, critical issue like workplace harassment is for students and institutions to take the matter into their own hands and work toward making the workplace a better, happier and productive place as it should be.

*The survey was conceptualised and designed by Monica Kaushik, a postdoctoral fellow at the Wildlife Institute of India, with inputs from Krishnapriya Tamma, a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science; Sandhya Sekar; Sabuj Bhattacharyya, a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science; and Vena Kapoor, the Education and Public Engagement Programme Coordinator at the Nature Conservation Foundation.

Sandhya Sekar is the programme manager at Mongabay-India. She has a PhD from the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science and later trained to be a science writer.

Banner image: screenshot from Google.

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