Stress of COVID-19 taking its toll on Aus scientists

Tuesday, 19 October, 2021

Stress of COVID-19 taking its toll on Aus scientists

A new report by Professional Scientists Australia and Science & Technology Australia (STA) has revealed the enormous toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on the nation’s scientists, with widespread job insecurity, a spike in workloads and fatigue, and devastating job losses found to be eroding the morale of Australia’s science workforce at a time when we need it most.

The latest edition of the Professional Scientists Employment and Remuneration Report, run every year to gather data on salaries and workplace conditions, found that over 70.6% of scientists said worker fatigue had increased — a significant jump on last year’s survey result of 54.6% — while 62.5% reported that staff morale had declined in their organisation, compared with 45.8% last year.

“Australia’s scientists are overworked, exhausted, and morale within their organisations is plummeting,” said Professional Scientists Australia CEO Jill McCabe.

“The COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns, the difficulties of managing COVID restrictions in the workplace and balancing home and work life have all taken an extraordinary toll.

“Over the last 18 months as we’ve battled through the pandemic, we’ve relied on our scientific community more than ever before.

“We owe them a considerable debt of honour for their vital work.”

Australia’s scientists reported they were doing an increasing amount of overtime and were expected to work longer hours compared with last year. Respondents worked on average 44.6 hours per week, including 7.5 hours of overtime; in last year’s survey, these figures were 43.8 hours per week and 6.1 hours of overtime.

Professional Scientists Australia President Katie Havelberg said that in addition to fatigue, a key contributor to low organisational morale was the amount of unpaid overtime expected of Australia’s scientists.

“More than half of the scientists we surveyed said they received no compensation either financially or in time off for additional hours worked,” she said.

“This was particularly acute in the education sector, such as universities, where almost of 80% of respondents reported they received no compensation for additional work.”

Other findings include:

  • 15.6% and 27.6% of respondents respectively said reduced adherence to professional standards and reduced service quality were evident in their organisation over the last 12 months.
  • Two in five female respondents said they had experienced gender bias or discrimination on the basis of gender in the previous three years.
  • One in five women had experienced sexual harassment at least once in their careers, compared to around one in 25 men.
  • One in five scientists said physical distancing was limiting their work.
  • One in five scientists said they had restricted access to research facilities during the pandemic.
  • One in four scientists said they were on fixed-term work contracts, with an average contract length of just 18 months.
  • One in five scientists said anxiety or mental distress due to the pandemic was affecting their ability to work.
  • One in five scientists indicated they plan to leave the profession entirely in coming years, up from 18.3% in 2020.

Havelberg said that the scientific community’s contribution to protecting our health and ensuring Australia can reopen its economy safely after mass vaccination was immeasurable.

“It is absolutely critical that we as a society acknowledge that incredible contribution and sacrifice by making sure Australia’s scientists are looked after in return,” she said.

“That means workplaces where scientists are supported with good working conditions, reasonable hours of work and fair pay, including remuneration for all hours worked.”

STA CEO Misha Schubert added, “There’s a huge risk that many more of our brilliant scientists will hit breaking point and just walk away if we don’t fix this broken system of insecure work.

“We need stronger investment in science, such as a $2.4 billion Research Translation Fund, and much greater job security for scientists to avert a disastrous loss of talent and pursue a science-led recovery.”

The full report can be found here.

Image credit: © STUDIOS

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