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Prevention of stress among PhD students at the Department of Molecular Medicine

The following contains general information about stress, as well as points of attention associated with stress, which are particularly relevant to you as a PhD student.

Stress - a shared responsibility

Despite the immense need for being able to treat an increasing number of people suffering from stress, stress continues to be a very complex topic. Efforts to prevent and manage stress must therefore be organised by means of multilateral and joint efforts.

At IMM, we are interested in preventing and managing stress for our PhD students. Therefore, the department launched a programme in collaboration with SDU's organisational psychologist Birgitte Aagaard Zethsen in 2019. The programme addresses the challenges of well-being and focuses on the prevention of stress for PhD students. The department hopes that the initiative will create a basis for PhD students, supervisors and heads of department to collaborate on creating good well-being conditions for the individual PhD student and contribute to a detabooization of stress.

The initiative consists of 3 parts:

1. Focus on the PhD student
• The organisational psychologist will interview all newly enrolled PhD students and follow-up interviews will be held during the 3-year period that the PhD students are at IMM
• An introduction to the department and an interview with head of department Uffe Holmskov at the beginning of the PhD student's employment
• Interview with supervisor and head of department, in which the roles of the PhD programme are clarified in order to prevent the cross-pressure that, among other things, may arise when the PhD student also needs to deliver teaching
2. Focus on the network surrounding the PhD student
• Establishment of PhD club at IMM, exchanging experiences 
3. Reactive management
• Electronic toolbox that:
- can inspire the prevention and management of stress; including counselling for manager and colleagues
- contains a contingency plan if the PhD student is affected by stress or depression

What is stress?

There is no clear, common definition of what stress is, but stress researchers work with a distinction between short-term and long-term stress. Short-term stress contributes to mobilising extra reserves to reach a pressed deadline for example. Long-term stress is associated with physical and mental health problems and occurs when stress reactions have been going on for too long. In the field of psychology, the concept of stress is particularly understood based on Lazarus and Folkman’s definition:
“Stress is defined as a particular relationship between the person and the environment that is appraised by the person as taxing or exceeding his or her resources and endangering his or her well-being. Stress is a state of the organism characterised by physiological reactions with the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, immune system, energy mobilisation and mental activation resulting from stress of a psychological, physical, chemical or biological nature. (…) When we are stressed, we become (…) physically and mentally geared to do our best. Our organism goes into a state of alert. It is a reaction that has its limitations over time however, as prolonged stress results in a negative impact on the organism.” 

How widespread is stress?

Stress is something that both concerns and affects a lot of people at the workplace and in their private lives. Although stress is not considered an official diagnosis, as it is not included as an independent diagnosis in diagnostic systems (ICD-10 and PSM-IV), the World Health Organisation estimates that stress and depression will be one of the major factors of disease in 2020.
A survey by The National Research Centre for the Working Environment in Denmark shows that 51% of Danes stated work as the main source of stress, while 43% answered that it was due to both work and private life. An overall 94% of those surveyed stated that work plays a role in their development of stress to some extent.

Identity and working life

Today It can be a challenge to distinguish “work life” as separate to a "private life". Having time off work does not necessarily mean that thoughts about jobs and tasks do not arise at home while sitting on the sofa or in the middle of reading a goodnight story. The burdens of a work environment characterised by extreme busyness, uncertainty about deadlines and a dependency on others to deliver results, can develop into an omnipresent mental workload that can result in consequences for well-being both during and outside of working hours.


Typical symptoms of stress

Behavioural: overeating, forgetting to eat, increased intake of alcohol and medication, mood swings, irritability, impulsiveness, restlessness, impaired sense of humour, social withdrawal, unstable work efforts, increased tendency towards making mistakes and carrying out sloppy work, more conflicts, increased sickness absence
Emotional: feeling of guilt and inadequacy, anxiety, low self-esteem, nervousness, vulnerability to criticism, exhaustion, aggression, frustration, restlessness, feeling of being overwhelmed, powerlessness, depression, fatigue
Physical: headaches, dizziness, high blood pressure, palpitations and high pulse rate, trembling hands, pressure and pains in the chest, shortness of breath, tension in the body, anxiety and buzzing sensations in the body, sleep disturbances, anxiety in the solar plexus, stomach and digestive disorders (diarrhoea, constipation), decreased sex drive, frequent infections, outbreaks or deterioration of chronic illness.

You may well experience these and other symptoms without being stressed as long as the symptoms disappear again after a shorter period.

Source: Matzau, Majken, 2009: Stresscoaching
Some stress symptoms such as lack of concentration, problems with memory, withdrawal from others, exhaustion and lack of motivation can be misinterpreted as lack of engagement or talent. This may cause that real stress symptoms could be wrongfully interpreted as indicative of you not being a qualified PhD student after all.


Identity as a PhD student

As a PhD student, your research is often based on personal interests. The balance between work and leisure time can therefore be difficult to define. Daily life is often characterised by busyness, a diversified portfolio of tasks and several deadlines. Most people will experience the feeling of not being engaged or having difficulty in completing everything at one time or another during their PhD programme. If this feeling persists for a long time without having any dialogue with the supervisor or others in the project, there is a risk that it may be difficult to distinguish between what is work-related and who you are as a person. The combination of numerous doubts about work tasks and a weakened sense of self-understanding may be the start of a negative spiral. This can lead to several key stress symptoms such as sleep, memory and concentration difficulties, as well as irritability and anger etc. New figures show that more than one in every 3 PhD students experience that working life affects their private lives in such a way that their sleep and/or social life is adversely affected.

It is essential to have continuous contact with your supervisor and head of department during your PhD programme in order to prevent the risk of work challenges having negative consequences for your self-understanding and identity in general. In addition to the official contract, it may be a good idea to have a contract that focuses on aligning your expectations for e.g. the scope of the supervision and accessibility. Another basic element for well-being during your working life as a PhD student is the sense of community and social belonging. It may be a good idea to seek out communities through e.g. a PhD club, if you generally work a lot on your own. You can also find out if other PhD students would like to meet for lunch or a coffee once or twice a week.

Examples of informal contracts – Click here and here
Example of PhD club run by students at IMM

Check out these links if you would like to know more about stress, symptoms and prevention

Books in Danish:
• Albæk, Morten, 2018: Ét liv Én tid Ét menneske (One life, One time, One person)
• Friis Andersen, Malene and Brinkmann, Svend, ed., 2013: Nye perspektiver på stress i arbejdslivet (New perspectives for stress in work)
• Friis Andersen, Malene and Kingston, Marie, 2016: Stop stress - håndbog for ledere (handbook for managers)
• Matzau, Majken, 2009: Stresscoaching
• Netterstrøm, Bo, 2014: Stress og arbejde (Stress and work)
Websites, articles and reports:
• Stressforeningen (Danish Stress Association), 2019:
• Det Nationale Forskningscenter for Arbejdsmiljø (National Research Centre for the Working Environment), 2018:
• Dansk Magisterforening, Magisterbladet (Danish MA Association, MA periodical), 5 April 2019: (Author: Anna Dalsgaard)
• Branchefællesskaberne for Arbejdsmiljø (Industry Communities for the Working Environment), 2016: Forebyg stress i fællesskab (Prevent stress together)

Last Updated 08.11.2023