EPFL survey assesses the well-being of its entire community

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The response rate was around 25%. © 2023 EPFL
The response rate was around 25%. © 2023 EPFL
EPFL conducted a survey of its community’s health and well-being in November 2022, with the goal of pinpointing needs in this area and developing practical measures to address them. The response rate was around 25%, and all segments of the community were represented in the sample. Just over half of the respondents reported at least one symptom of burnout, and performance-related pressure was cited as the main source of negative stress. Respondents also reported a worrying number of incidents of bullying/mobbing. EPFL has already identified a series of measures it will take in the short and medium term.

EPFL set up a Task Force Mental Health and Well-Being in 2022 to promote well-being across its community. And in November, the Task Force sent out a community-wide survey to coincide with the School’s first Mental Health Week. "We’re seeing a growing number of people with mental-health issues, in society in general and in particular at universities," says Kathryn Hess Bellwald, EPFL’s Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Outreach and the head of the Task Force. "The pandemic undoubtedly played a role, but even before that I’d already been hearing from people who were concerned about the mental health of some of their peers. We decided to survey our entire community, since we all depend on each other for our well-being. From what I can tell, most university surveys are carried out only among students, so in this respect we’re a pioneer. That said, every section of our survey was previously validated by other studies, and that helps us interpret the results."

Treating symptoms while addressing the problem

The questionnaire was prepared by a Task Force working group and by the Center for Primary Care and Public Health (Unisanté) at Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV), which also collected and analyzed the data. The survey was anonymous and no personal information was shared with the School. Approximately 4,300 people participated - corresponding to a 23% response rate, considered good for this type of survey - and formed a representative sample of the EPFL community.

Some 52.7% of respondents reported experiencing at least one symptom of burnout, with a higher rate among women (55.8%) than among men (49.6%). This issue was especially acute among students, with more than 60% of this group reporting at least one symptom. "That’s troubling and means we need to think seriously about our approach to studying and working," says Hess Bellwald. "It’s not just about finding palliative measures to treat the symptoms revealed by the survey - we also need to understand where the symptoms come from and make structural changes that get to the root of the problem."

The first measure that will be taken for students is to introduce a one-week break in the fall semester, starting in 2024. This highly popular decision will give students a welcome breather in a semester that’s already packed and that’s followed by the winter exam session. But EPFL also needs to consider how it can reduce negative stress caused by workload demands and performance expectations. The survey found that these stressors were predictors not only of burnout, but also of "satisfaction with life" and psychological distress (non-psychotic mental disorders) - an issue affecting 30.7% of survey respondents. Although this is comparable with the figure for the population of French-speaking Switzerland as a whole, it is nevertheless worryingly high.

We want performance expectations to be well understood by everyone, in an environment where people know how to give and receive constructive feedback and where dialogue and transparent communication are a priority.

Given how competitive academic environments are, EPFL is looking hard at what can be done to reduce this type of negative stress. The Task Force set up a working group to examine organization-wide measures, as well as three other working groups to come up with measures for scientists, administrative & technical staff, and students. Hess Bellwald explains: "We’re exploring many different options, like providing more training to community members on giving and receiving feedback, suggesting ways to better manage performance expectations - for those who conduct performance reviews as well as those who are evaluated - and emphasizing that failure is part of the learning process, since you can’t learn something new or innovate if you’re afraid to take a risk, including the risk of failure."

Education and awareness can help counter bullying/mobbing

The survey also asked if respondents had experienced bullying/mobbing at EPFL. 23.5% of them said they possibly or definitely had. Rates were highest among scientists (without teaching activity) and doctoral students, at 28.3% and 31.5% respectively. Doctoral students in particular seem to have seen an increase: in a 2019 survey , 13% of these students reported they "possibly" had suffered from bullying/mobbing and 7.7% that they "definitely" had, but in the 2022 survey, the figures jumped to 19.9% and 11.6%.

Since there is no earlier survey data on other segments of the community, EPFL doesn’t know if the increase applies across the board or just to doctoral students. But concrete steps have already been taken. For instance, the reform of the mentoring system and a training to academic staff members who serve as mentors.

"The Doctoral School will increase its efforts to systematize all EPFL resources in support of the health of our PhD students", says Annalisa Buffa, EPFL’s Associate Vice President for Postgraduate Education. "We want the PhD journey at EPFL to be rich, engaging, and healthy for our students."

Measures are being considered to emphasize that harassment is not acceptable and will not be tolerated, and to better train people who have a supervisory role. EPFL formed a Trust and Support Network last year and appointed a new Respect Compliance Officer to handle complaints of harassment, violence and discrimination from all sections of the School community.

Next steps

"Thanks to the survey, we now have quantitative data we can use to develop a strategy for improving mental health and well-being at our School and spelling out targeted measures," says Hess Bellwald. "We want our campuses to be places where people are happy to work or study since they feel supported, respected, appreciated, valued and listened to and have a strong connection to the community. We want performance expectations to be well understood by everyone, in an environment where people know how to give and receive constructive feedback and where dialogue and transparent communication are a priority."

Various measures will be rolled out at the start of the fall semester in September. For example, the Trust and Support Network will trial a new "mental health first-responder" training program, which anyone can attend. First responders are not expected to fulfill the role of qualified therapists. Instead, they’ll be trained to help people who are struggling and explain where they can get further support. On top of this, EPFL plans to hold Healthy Days on the EPFL campus between 9 and 13 October. These will consist of workshops, panel discussions, talks and other events on the theme of physical and mental health.