Mental Health in Academia: The unseen role of technicians

Both undergraduate and postgraduate students with mental health issues often turn to technicians for wellbeing support.

When a student, undergraduate or postgraduate, has an issue with their mental health, the first person they turn to is often someone they interact with on a daily basis, such as a technician, rather than their supervisor. The extent of the support provided by technicians is made clear in the results of a survey conducted by the Technician Commitment, the universities of Liverpool and Nottingham, and four scientific societies (the Science Council, Institute of Physics, Royal Society of Biology and Royal Society of Chemistry). Some 735 technicians responded to the survey, and the results were reported in June 2019. Here, two of the authors of this report, Kate Jones and Maizy Jenner (both at the University of Liverpool), talk about the findings of the survey. The interview is part of a collection on Mental Health in Academia, and the results of the survey are also discussed in an article about the support people provide to researchers who experience difficult times.

Kate Jones and Maizy Jenner. Image credit: Kate Jones

How would you summarise the main findings from the report?

We found that out of the technicians who responded to the survey, 51% had discussed a personal problem with a postgraduate student, and 44% with an undergraduate. In addition, 22% of the 735 respondents said they provided mental health and wellbeing support to students. However, of those who provided this pastoral support, only a handful (3%) said that this was a formal part of their job. Additionally, 57% of the technicians surveyed said that they did not feel equipped to offer students this kind of support, and 68% said they had not received any mental health training.

Why do you think students feel more comfortable approaching technicians than other members of staff?

Because technicians are often in the same lab environments as the students, they get to know the students on a more peer-to-peer level, and have a better understanding of what students are going through on a daily basis. This makes students feel that they can speak more freely with technicians about their mental health and wellbeing than other members of staff, such as their supervisor, where there is more of a power dynamic. We’ve actually seen from other projects we’re working on as part of the Post-graduate Mental Health and Wellbeing Catalyst Project (which is funded by the Office for Students and Research England) that it’s often this power imbalance that stops students feeling comfortable talking about these types of personal issues.

Do you think technicians themselves are aware of the supporting role they play in student wellbeing?

We were really struck by the volume of response we got to the survey, especially the number of free text comments we received from technicians wanting to share their personal experiences around this issue. This suggests to us that technicians may subconsciously be aware of the pastoral support they provide, but just never had an opportunity to talk about it before.

Were there any results that surprised you?

The spectrum of issues technicians are dealing with on a daily basis. There were instances of technicians dealing with suicide, self-harm – essentially mental health related matters that you would expect counsellors and psychotherapists to be dealing with. It’s not just one-off approaches technicians are dealing with either, a lot of them said they had been providing long term support for students, particularly for students struggling with depression and anxiety.

Considering the severity of the issues technicians are dealing with, what impact do you think this has on their own mental health?

We had a number of free text comments saying, ‘what about our mental health?’, and this is definitely something that needs to be addressed further. One of the recommendations from the report is that institutions need to support technical staff with their own mental health and wellbeing, in addition to providing appropriate training and development.

Do you think technicians should be the ones addressing these issues, or should other members of staff in the university be responsible for providing this support?

Within all institutions there should be central specialist support services with dedicated staff whose role is focused around student mental health and wellbeing, such as counselling services. But alongside these central services there needs to be a wider network of support available. Because, in reality students are going to approach whoever they feel most comfortable talking about these issues with, whether that be technicians or other members of staff they communicate with on a regular basis. These staff need to be trained on how to handle these types of conversations, or at the bare minimum know where to refer students to get the help they need. Also, central support services are commonly over-subscribed, and providing this type of training to student facing staff may help reduce the number of cases that get escalated to these services.

The results from the survey suggest that women in technician roles are more likely to provide pastoral support to students than their male counterparts. Why do you think this is?

There are many different factors to consider, which go beyond the scope of this survey. However, female respondents rated themselves as more likely to actively approach a student if they were concerned about their wellbeing, and this increased confidence and visibility might be why more students are approaching female technicians for support.

Do you think this could have an impact on female technician’s careers?

There’s no concrete data to say what effect taking on this pastoral role has on female technician’s careers. However, it could potentially have a bigger impact in scientific disciplines where there’s fewer women in technician roles, such as physics or engineering. Even so, all scientific disciplines should be working towards having an equal gender balance of staff who provide support. Institutions, for example, could organise mental health training specifically for male technicians, or take positive action to identify more men to undertake the training.

Results from the survey showed that whilst many institutions offered mental health training to staff, only a small number of technicians had undertaken it. Why do you think this is?

We found that it was mostly because training sessions were oversubscribed, because other members of staff got priority, or because the training was only available to academic staff. Some respondents also said that although they were aware mental health training was available, they didn’t know how to access it, or didn’t realise that technicians were eligible to take the training.

Why do you think technicians don’t know how to access these training courses?

For most institutions, there are limited resources for providing this type of training and when prioritising who should go on these courses, technicians often do not get targeted, as providing pastoral care is not typically seen as being part of their job role. Indeed, before the survey was carried out, technicians were not considered a staff group that would provide this level of mental health support.

Do you think supporting student wellbeing should be a formal part of the technician role?

We were very careful in the report not to make an explicit recommendation that this should be an official part of the technician role, as this is something individual institutions need to decide based on their own technical workforce. For example, a small number of respondents said they didn’t see providing pastoral support as part of their role. So, if this was to become mandatory it may give some technicians extra responsibilities that are not relevant to their current job. Although, saying that we do think that all staff, regardless of their job description, should be aware that they could be approached by a student for help of this kind, and be able to provide that student with some level of support, or at least know where to sign-post them so they can get help.

What training do you think technicians should receive so they feel more equipped to support students?

There are mental health first aid training courses available but these come with difficulties, as they are often externally sourced and come with a cost attachment. Technicians fed back into the survey that even providing training on a more basic level, such as knowing how to spot the signs and where to refer students for professional support, would make them feel more confident to reach out to students who are struggling. We also highlighted in the report that institutions need to consider the working patterns of technicians when offering training. For example, they may only work during term time or be in a role that requires them to always be in the lab. And for part-time staff, who, say, only work three days a week, attending a two-day mental health first aid training course is going to be difficult. So institutions need to think more creatively about how they offer training.

Do you think technicians should be getting the same training as other members of staff, or do you think their training should be more specific?

On top of basic training in mental health awareness, technicians could receive more bespoke ongoing support through specific networks or communities. For example, one of the free text comments that really stood out was a technician who had to advise a student who was self-harming how to deal with an open wound in the lab. Situations like these are very specific, and something a student administrative member of staff for example, who isn’t working with students daily in the lab, is unlikely to encounter. By bringing technical staff together through these communities, technicians can learn from each other and share experiences and practice about mental health issues they are more likely to face.

What has the response to the results from the survey been within the research community?

We hosted a workshop at the 2019 Higher Education Technical Summit based around the report in June, where there were lots of technicians in the room saying this report ‘is long overdue’. We also got a lot of positive feedback when we presented the report at the last signatory event held by one of our collaborators, an initiative called the Technician Commitment that aims to raise the visibility, recognition, career development and sustainability of the technical workforce. Each of the 83 institutional commitment signatories sends a member to these events, and we hope that they will take the findings from the survey back to their institution, and start having conversations with senior management around the issues raised in the report. Moving forward we need to start tracking the different discussions we’re having with both senior management and technical staff, and follow up with institutions and see if any of the report’s recommendations are being implemented.

Kate Jones and Maizy Jenner were interviewed by Julia Deathridge, Associate Features Editor, eLife.