Early and mid-career researchers represent the future of the social sciences, humanities and arts for people and environment disciplines, and this future is under threat. EMCRs working in SHAPE represent a large and important part of the workforce within universities, and as such are largely responsible for training the next generation of researchers and academics. However, funding cuts to the sector and precarious employment has led to serious consequences for EMCRs, with increasing attrition. Importantly, future Australian and global workforces require SHAPE skills, knowledge and understandings as they transverse linguistic diversity and global context. With the system on the verge of a major collapse, the burn-out and attrition of SHAPE EMCRs is one of the most significant risk factors that could be the tipping point given SHAPE supplies two thirds of Australia’s workforce.

Even prior to COVID-19, the mental health impacts on this group of emerging leaders in relation to high workloads, job insecurity, and inadequate support were significant. Moreover, the pre-pandemic mental health challenges posed to the EMCR sector have no doubt been amplified in the three years since the emergence of COVID-19, and EMCRs working in SHAPE disciplines have been disproportionately affected during this time. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported employment in the arts labour market fell by 872,000 people between March and May 2020 alone, and it was the second hardest hit industry.

The EMCR SHAPE Futures Network survey of Australian SHAPE EMCRs, that ran from September 2022 to April 2023, found that 67 per cent of (N=171) respondents were negatively impacted by COVID-19. The ramifications reported were significant funding cuts to the arts and humanities sector during this time, job freezes, casualisation, and increased workload pressures linked with restructures in tertiary education (e.g., updated teaching systems, reduction in staffing and dual-delivery modes). One respondent reported, “I don’t feel secure in my employment because the humanities aren’t secure.”

Publishing or perishing? The rising risk of burn-out

Not surprisingly, in this current uncertain and insecure context, stress-related health issues are on the rise in academia, with EMCRs at particularly high risk. Long has the maxim “publish or perish” been touted to EMCRs by established senior academics. But in an environment of research being paused due to COVID-19, conferences and travel being restricted, grant funding reduced, insecure employment, and where time is at a premium, more EMCRs are at risk of leaving their respective fields than ever before. Of note, one of the strongest contributing factors to this precariat risk of “perishing” and EMCR burn-out is perceived publication pressure.

The impact of these chronic stressors and their debilitating mental health impact has been recognised by the World Health Organisation, with burn-out now classified as an occupational phenomenon. Burn-out is characterised by feelings of depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, feelings of negativism or cynicism, and reduced professional efficacy. In our survey, one SHAPE EMCR expressing probable symptoms of burnout reported feeling a “…sense of hopelessness – how long do I hang on? Keep researching in my own time, when there appears to be little or no prospect of enough work/a career in my field.” Another respondent reported, “it is quite dispiriting to try and work out what to do with myself in the very likely situation that I am unable to find secure employment as an academic.”

Why this matters to all Australians

The rates of EMCRs leaving their profession was recently described as a “mass exodus”. At multiple levels, the awareness of the challenges faced by EMCRs has been identified as a priority area of concern. Many parallel review processes are taking place, with reforms made to the NHRMC schemes, current review panels closely examining ARC schemes, as well as the National Science and Research Priorities and the Australian Universities Accord reviews.

More broadly however, here is why every-day Australians should care, too. Investing in the future of SHAPE does not only mean we get to go to the theatre, watch performances and admire the arts. SHAPE disciplines provide us, and graduates, with the critical thinking to address some of the largest problems in our society.

Globally, we face a barrage of new global crises, ranging from not just the pandemic but to natural disasters and biodiversity crises, social and First Nations disadvantage, cyber security attacks, misinformation, terrorism, and the unchecked explosion of generative Artificial Intelligence, to name a few.

What all these have in common with SHAPE disciplines and expertise is human behaviour. Behaviour is arguably at each of their root cause. Human behaviour however, is also the pathway to change. Those who undertake research into human behaviour are able to analyse, explain and extrapolate on how such crises evolve in order to learn from mistakes and build on successes.

SHAPE disciplines are deeply linked to outcomes for both people and the environment. We do not have the luxury of responding to such deep challenges in a leisurely, serial way. What is needed is a trained, funded, and secure workforce that is “future proofed”. However, unless the conditions and circumstances contributing to burn-out and the mass exodus of EMCRs from the field is critically addressed, there won’t be a “future to be proofed” for SHAPE. As we stand on the precipice of change, the new University Accord reshapes the university sector and AI changes the landscape we all work in, more than ever there is a need to invest in those who have the skills to contribute the knowledge required to build a society we all want to live in.

Melissa A. Day, School of Psychology, Uni Queensland and chairperson, Australian SHAPE Futures EMCR Network

Sarah Midford, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University and co-deputy chairperson of the SHAPE Futures EMCR Network

Anna Kosovac, Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Uni Melbourne and the co-deputy chair of the SHAPE Futures EMCR Network





to get daily updates on what's happening in the world of Australian Higher Education