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The stress of academe

By SHELLEY POMERANCE | MAR 10 2008

Not long ago, Wanda McKenna, director of workplace health, benefits and pensions at McMaster University, was contacted by a department chair concerned about a colleague. The professor was spending a lot of time sitting in his office with the door closed and lights off. And students were beginning to complain about his teaching.

Ms. McKenna contacted the professor and, with his consent, set up an appointment with a nurse counsellor. The nurse recommended he see the health service’s psychiatrist, who followed up with the professor’s family doctor. They took quick action, decided on treatment and discussed whether or not the professor should stay on the job. “In the big picture, you’re much better off if we can keep you at work,” says Ms. McKenna. Better for the individual, and for the university, more cost-effective.

There’s no doubt university teaching is stressful, with the pressures of tenure, publishing, increasing student enrolment and new technologies. And then there’s that familiar refrain – work-life balance, which affects university professors too.

But very few universities offer services aimed specifically at professors dealing with stress in the workplace. When Ms. McKenna arrived at McMaster in 2001, she found that there were “issues coming forward but no comprehensive structure to deal with these problems. You’re getting them at the back end when the issues have become so complicated, versus being able to come in earlier on and take more of a prevention standpoint.” She’s been working on a comprehensive structure ever since, with consistent support from her team and senior management, which has offered understanding and resources.

Ms. McKenna refers to a “medical management-type model” which includes a nurse counsellor, psychiatrist, two return-to-work specialists, part-time occupational health nurse, and an occupational health physician who spends one half-day a week on campus. Ms. McKenna stresses that throughout the system, confidentiality is of prime importance.

In general, McMaster’s employee health service takes a very low-key approach. It intentionally doesn’t publicize its services but rather, as people come forward, makes them aware of what’s available. As for results, Ms. McKenna is discreet on that subject. But she admits that they are seeing more faculty than before and “we are hearing good things from the individuals who have accessed these services.”

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