A new report launched by Professional Scientists Australia has revealed the enormous toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on the nation’s scientists, with skyrocketing fatigue and plummeting morale prompting calls for both business and government to provide more support to these vital professionals.
The Professional Scientists Employment and Remuneration Report 2021-22 undertaken in conjunction with Science & Technology Australia found that over 70.6% of scientists said worker fatigue had increased, a significant jump on last year’s survey result of 54.6% and 62.5% reported that staff morale had declined in their organisation, compared with 45.8% last year.
Professional Scientists Australia CEO Jill McCabe said the report’s findings on the decline of workplace morale and conditions for Australia’s scientists was deeply alarming.
“Australia’s scientists are overworked, exhausted and morale within their organisations is plummeting. 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. They have been fundamentally important in helping us to better understand and combat the virus, and in developing lifesaving vaccines against COVID-19. We owe them a considerable debt of honour for their vital work” Ms McCabe said.
But despite their contribution, Australia’s scientists reported they were doing an increasing amount of overtime and were expected to work longer hours compared with last year.
Survey respondents said:
“Working and having a career in STEM feels less rewarded in comparison to other fields of work. Lower pay with high workloads and increased stress in comparison to other fields is a big issue. My workload has increased but my hours remained the same.”
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. 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.”
Ms 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 absolutely critical that we as a society acknowledge that incredible contribution and sacrifice by making sure Australia’s scientists are looked after in return. That means workplaces where scientists are supported with good working conditions, reasonable hours of work and fair pay, including renumeration for all hours worked. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated just how much we rely on these incredible professionals. It is incumbent that business and government treat them with the value they rightly deserve.”
“Working in a lab – workloads have been crazy. Many, many extra hours required.” – Survey respondent
- Over two-thirds (70.6%) of respondents said worker fatigue had increased. This is a large jump on last year’s survey result of 54.6%.
“My workplace gets more and more broken with every change or ‘innovation’.” – Survey respondent
- Almost two in three scientists surveyed (62.5%) said staff morale had declined in their organisation over the previous 12 months. This is an alarming rise from last year’s survey, where 45.8% reported declining organisational morale.
“My workload has increased but my hours remained the same.” – Survey respondent
- 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.
- 12.7% of respondents reported they were expected to work longer hours in the past year compared to the previous one.
- More than half of scientists surveyed (58.9%) said they received no compensation either financially or in time off, and this was particularly acute in the education sector – such as at universities (79.4%).
Decline In Service Quality and Professional Standards
“Ongoing financial stress has resulted in an extended period of budgetary uncertainty and significant job-cuts with a strong decline in morale, job satisfaction and increased stress.” – Survey respondent
- 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.
Discrimination and Sexual Harassment
“I dropped out of the research project in which the harasser was involved.” – Survey respondent
- Two in five female respondents (41.8%) said they had experienced gender bias or discrimination on the basis of gender in the previous three years.
- One in five women (17.3%) had experienced sexual harassment at least once in their careers compared to around one in 25 men (4.1%).
Impact of COVID-19
“During the period of lockdown, I felt exhausted by continually having to adapt my team’s research to achieve outcomes. In addition, my organisation has implemented many new changes which have exacerbated this exhaustion. I worked hard to maintain a positive attitude for my staff but feel like this has been at a high personal cost.” – Survey respondent
- One in 14 (7.1%) had taken a pay cut as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- One in 20 scientists in the survey (5.1%) said their paid work hours had fallen – with full-time salaried employees the least affected.
- More than one in four (36.0%) had opted to work from home and 58.2% had been directed to work from home. Some surveyed scientists said they were not permitted to work from home, even though they thought it was feasible.
- One in five (21.4%) said physical distancing was limiting their work.
- One in five (22.8%) said they had restricted access to research facilities during the pandemic.
- One in eight (12.1%) had their role or responsibilities at work changed.
- One in five scientists surveyed (21.5%) said anxiety or mental distress due to the pandemic was affecting their ability to work.
• Around one in six (13.9%) said caring for children/home schooling had curbed their ability to work.