Researchers find pandemic exacerbates anxiety, depression, impulsivity and lack of mindfulness among faculty

KINGSTON, R.I. – Jan. 29, 2021 – A study by a team of psychologists from three universities found heightened levels of anxiety, depression and impulsivity and a decrease in actions to mitigate those symptoms among university faculty during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study looked at responses from 302 faculty members from the University of Rhode Island and Lehigh University in Pennsylvania who completed a voluntary, online survey in May – more than a month after U.S. college campuses suspended in-person classes.

“The pandemic has affected all of us, but the study shows that faculty are also a vulnerable population,” said Lisa L. Weyandt, URI professor of psychology, director of the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program, and principal author of the study. “We were interested in learning what the effects have been on professors who are used to being in the classroom, interacting with students and their colleagues, and are suddenly isolated and working from home. Even though faculty are highly educated, we see they too are prone to increased mental health issues and engaging in unhealthy behaviors.”

“The pandemic has negatively impacted faculty members’ executive functioning, psychological welfare, and overall productivity in profound ways,” added George J. DuPaul, fellow author and a professor at Lehigh University. “Our findings show the need for faculty to engage in strategies for self-care that can prevent negative outcomes from crisis events like COVID-19 and enhance their overall quality of life, regardless of prevailing circumstances.”

The study, “Anxiety, Depression, Impulsivity, and Mindfulness among Higher Education Faculty during COVID-19,” was published last month by the peer-reviewed journal Health Behavior and Policy Review. Along with Weyandt and DuPaul, authors on the study include Dr. Alyssa Francis, a URI alumna; URI doctoral students Emily Shepard and Avery Beatty; Boston University graduate student Isabella Channell, also a URI alumna; and Professor Bergljót Gyda Gudmundsdóttir of the University of Iceland.

Researchers examined the relationship between symptoms of anxiety, depression and impulsivity and mindfulness among full-time and part-time faculty during the pandemic, and examined how those symptoms and practices differed by age, gender, ethnicity and location.

Overall, results showed that lower mindfulness – actions such as meditation, exercise or healthy eating that can reduce stress – and greater impulsivity were associated with higher rates of anxiety and depression. About 24 percent of the full-time faculty at the two universities took part in the study.

“While we can’t generalize to all faculty across all universities,” said Weyandt, “the external validity of this study is strengthened by the fact that faculty from more than one university participated.”

A total of 15.3% of participating faculty reported elevated symptoms of depression, 19.5% reported higher levels of anxiety, and 5.4% had elevated levels of impulsivity. A total of 8% reported reduced mindfulness. Additionally, 33.6% reported worsened eating habits during the four weeks prior to the study, 36.6% reported poorer sleeping habits, 38.6% experienced reduced exercise habits, and 21.5% reported higher alcohol use.

“A unique finding of the study is, faculty who reported higher levels of mindfulness – based on the measures we used – reported significantly fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety and impulsivity,” Weyandt said. “In addition, those who reported higher symptoms of depression, hyperactivity, and impulsivity symptoms, were more likely to overeat, drink alcohol and in some cases use of cannabis increased. It clearly emerged that those who were more mindful were less apt to engage in these behaviors.”

Other findings included:

  • Female participants (55.8% of respondents) experienced significantly greater levels of anxiety and practiced less mindfulness, while experiencing worsened eating and sleeping habits. There was no significant difference between men and women in reported levels of depression symptoms.
  • Faculty ages 35 and under reported experiencing more frequent anxiety symptoms and lower levels of mindfulness.
  • Those who had the virus or knew a loved one who had it did not report significantly higher levels of anxiety, depression, impulsivity or mindfulness.
  • Participants who reported at least one mental health diagnosis reported significantly higher anxiety, depression, impulsivity, and reduced mindfulness, including cannabis use and worsened eating habits.
  • There were no significant differences between white and non-white participants with regard to stress symptoms, mindfulness and healthy behaviors. But non-white participants (22.1% of respondents) reported significantly worsened exercise habits, and non-Latinx/Hispanic faculty reported higher levels of substance use (alcohol or cannabis).

“The findings highlight that some faculty are at increased risk for increased substance use and decreased exercise during COVID-19,” said Beatty. “This finding can help inform universities on the particular supports that may be needed for diverse faculty to assist with the differential health behaviors that were exhibited by the faculty at these universities.”

The stresses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic – such as severe lifestyle changes, physical distancing, worries of infection and loss of employment – have been the focus of numerous studies around the world that have reported reduced levels of physical activity and higher levels of anxiety and depression. But at the time of the study, none had looked at part-time or tenure-track faculty.

“I knew how I was feeling as a faculty member being isolated and not being able to go to the office,” said Weyandt, whose research lab initiated the study. “I wondered if others were feeling the same way, too. We delved into the literature and found a lack of information concerning faculty experiences regarding COVID-19. We thought that these findings would add to the literature and hopefully be helpful.”