Research center analyzes the psychosocial risks faced by the academic community within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic

What are the mental health damages and risks to the scientific community and to the administrative staff of a large-scale research center that arise from working within the situation brought on by Covid-19? How can the impact be minimized, in order to favor a healthy work environment, even though a good share of the activities continue to be performed remotely? These are some of the issues dealt with by a project of the Research Centre for Gas Innovation (RCGI), located in the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (Poli-USP), which is funded by the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) and by Shell.

Based on the case study and on actions focused on the more than 370 people who work at and for the RCGI – researchers, managers, and administrative staff – the project provides for developing tools, like a best-practices guide, training, and awareness of the psychosocial risks brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic, as well as the production of a methodology for identifying and minimizing them, which can be replicated by other academic institutions and scientific and technological research centers.

“The social conditions are aggravated by many fears that have been merged into the mix,” states attorney Raíssa Moreira Lima Mendes Musarra, Ph.D. in Sociology, who is in charge of the project’s methodology. “This is not only in the work environment; there are micro and macro social fears, including the stigma of contamination, the fear of catching the disease and of being far from family, as well as others.”

The project, which is in the funding phase, includes the application of protocols for identifying psychosocial risks in the workplace that are adapted to academic work and to the pandemic situation.

Two workshops have already been held, at the RCGI, in a virtual environment since the beginning of the quarantine, on the subject of mental health. The first was held in May and the second, in July, which featured researchers Olívia Pasqualeto, Professor at the Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV) and Doctor of Labor and Social Security Law, and Carolina Spack Kemmelmeier, also Doctor of Labor and Social Security Law, whose doctoral thesis deals with psychological violence and health of workers. A third encounter will likely be held yet in August.

Since September 2019, Raíssa has been a volunteer in the Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) group at the RCGI, together with psychologist Karen Louise Mascarenhas, the Centre’s Human Resources Manager, and Iranian researcher Mahdi Tavakkolaghaeim, an engineer (Master’s in Engineering), and HSE specialist. With the rise of the pandemic, the group focused its attention more directly on mental health. Among some of the issues identified during this period, with regard to those working in a home office, are to eventually have a work load expanded to more than 10 hours per day, and the absence or reduction of feedback from peers, meaning that the researchers did not truly realize the value of their own work.

Raíssa Musarra stated that, in some cases, such simple measures as the manager setting clear goals and limits for remote work (for example, not answering e-mails as of a given hour) can make a huge difference in their sense of well-being. “There must even be standard procedures for delivering results; standardization is necessary,” she says. Issues were also identified on the side of the researchers who manage projects, such as an absence of training during their academic studies, especially to be managers, in order to incorporate general knowledge of the organization and management of work. Among the project’s objectives is the promotion of dialogue among the main social players of the scientific community.

The return to working on company premises, particularly at more than 20 RCGI laboratories, demands special attention, in Raíssa’s opinion. Mainly because it is quite probable that in September there will be a rotation schedule for workers and researchers. “We are asking to avoid having researchers remain alone for long periods of time in closed environments, with products that are inflammable or having chemical or physical risks,” she says, adding that, when that is necessary, administrative staff must be advised of the fact. “This care must be taken, because we identified a greater risk to those who work in laboratories.”

The protocols must also include issues that affect mental health and are not necessarily related to the pandemic, such as bullying in the workplace. In Raíssa’s opinion, this type of violence does not occur merely when there are different hierarchical positions, because it can be perpetrated by the peers of a given worker or researcher.

Professor Júlio Meneghini, the RCGI’s Scientific Director, will be the researcher in charge of the project. One of the concerns is to not allow a slowdown of the country’s scientific development cycle and to minimize the adverse influences of Covid-19, since mental health is essential for the researchers and workers to exercise their skills, to deal with the normal stress levels of life, to work productively, and to contribute to the community.