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From Stress to Success – The Power of Mindfulness for Early-Career Researchers in Southeast Asia

Updated: May 23

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought both challenges and opportunities for academics and researchers. While the pandemic has brought fertile grounds for research, it has generated anxiety and depression among researchers. Eventually, stress from the digital transformation of education and research methods, along with competition within the industry has led to burnout among academics. This phenomenon is not just specific to academia or higher education, but it has been felt across all industries. In response to burnout experienced more distinctively during the COVID-19 pandemic, the concept of mindfulness has recently been put back to the spotlight as a form of psychological and physical intervention to bring back some form of balance in the volatile era.


Early-career researchers (ECRs) face the stressful challenges of getting tenure, getting published and transitioning from a student to a full-fledged researcher. These challenges have been attenuated by the pandemic curtailing research grants and employment opportunities, and stiff competition to publish against established researchers. For the sustained development of institutions and the research community, it is vital to support ECRs in a balanced and sustained approach. Thus, this article aims to illuminate how ECRs can leverage mindfulness to manage their work through the pandemic.

Moreover, this article aims to address the need for mindfulness intervention and the practice and understanding of mindfulness by ECRs in Southeast Asia, kick-starting a conversation for a mindful research career.

More specifically, this study highlights the benefits of mindfulness and the challenges of ECRs in Southeast Asia to adopt mindfulness in their lives. 

mindfulness among early career researchers

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There have been multiple definitions of mindfulness. One refers to it as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” and another defined it as “the state of being attentive to and aware of what is taking place in the present”. Hence, awareness, attention, and being in the present are the main characteristics of mindfulness. According to prior works in occupational and organizational psychology, evidence found that mindfulness interventions reduce work stress and promote work-life balance as a form of cognitive-emotional segmentation of life domains. Although mindfulness has been applied in education, studies targeting ECRs are limited. As such, this study adds value to current research surrounding mindfulness by identifying the benefits and challenges of mindfulness for ECRs.

Benefits of Mindfulness for ECRs

There has been an increase in advocating mindfulness not just among ECRs but the public interest in mindfulness as a coping mechanism generally has also been reported to accelerate during COVID-19. More than 3 in 10 ECRs experience stress during and when transitioning from student to researcher., which makes them a high risk segment within the general population and higher than other working professionals.  This includes physical (e.g., fatigue or hair loss), cognitive (e.g., anxiety or poor concentration), emotional (e.g., depression or agitation) and behavioural (e.g., lack of sleep or appetite changes) stress. These stresses significantly affect their physical and mental well-being; hampering their effort to strive for a healthy work-life balance. Thus, coping mechanisms like mindfulness can be beneficial to them.


First, it can help them to better manage the stress associated with their work and at the same time help them develop a greater sense of awareness and control over their thoughts and emotions, enabling them to respond to challenging situations in a more calm and effective manner. Second, adopting mindfulness can also help them to stay focused and productive even in the face of uncertainty and distractions. Third, mindfulness trains their minds to be more attentive and present so that they can improve their ability to concentrate on complex tasks, make better decisions, and work more efficiently.


For instance, in the US, 6-week yoga and meditation intervention study yoga and meditation intervention was proven to reduce stress and anxiety among university students, with a mean decrease of 9.6 points in anxiety and 7.9 points in perceived stress (p < .001), where no students were detected to have high anxiety and perceived stress post-intervention.. Therefore, ECRs in Southeast Asia should also familiarize themselves and reap benefits from mindfulness by incorporating mindful practices as part of their daily routine. That way, they can improve their mental and physical health, leading to an increased feeling of happiness and contentment and hence yielding better performance and success in their careers.


Challenges faced by ECRs in Southeast Asia

Notwithstanding, there are several challenges that impede ECRs to adopt and benefit from mindfulness. One major challenge is the Southeast Asian cultural barriers to mindfulness practices. There may not be a strong tradition of mindfulness practices, making it challenging for institutions and ECRs to adopt them. In addition to cultural barriers, the stigma around mental health can also be a significant challenge. Many cultures in the region perpetuate cultural stigmas around mental health, in which seeking help or support for mental health issues is often viewed as a sign of weakness or failure.


Another challenge is limited resources and funding for mental health support. Many institutions in Southeast Asia may not have sufficient resources or funding to support mental health initiatives for ECRs, such as counselling or therapy. Due to cultural context, there may also be a lack of institutional support for these practices as institutions in the region may not prioritize mindfulness practices. Organizations may not have policies or resources in place to support work-life balance, which can further contribute to stress and burnout among ECRs. This can be especially challenging for those who are already under stress due to the demands of academic work. These challenges can exacerbate the cycle of stress and mental health issues, leading some ECRs to leave academia or PhD programs.


This short note on mindfulness for ECRs in Southeast Asia has highlighted a research gap in the field. First, we touched upon the benefits for ECRs to adopt mindfulness which highlighted the need to incorporate mindfulness in their daily routines. Second, we identified the challenges faced by ECRs in adopting mindfulness which highlighted the need for greater awareness and support for mindfulness and mental health issues especially in Southeast Asia.This study sets to heighten awareness on the issue of mindfulness in ECRs in SEA, with the aim to kickstart empirical studies in the region.

So, we hope to encourage future studies and fellow colleagues from all academic levels to share their insights in overcoming these challenges we have pointed out, and explore mindfulness interventions for their career growth, resilience and well-being in the industry.  


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