Work/Life Balance Tips for Lab Professionals

Lab professionals share tips for balancing their personal lives with their work

By

From other recent articles on the subject, it’s clear that scientists have many different ideas of how to achieve work-life balance and on whether or not it even exists. In a recent entry in the “Can scientists really have work-life balance?” Naturejobs blog, Elisa Lazzari, a postdoc in the Health Sciences department of the University of California, San Diego, stresses the importance of organization. She writes that making lists and determining what outside-of-work activities you can live without is critical to determine what you can sacrifice for your work, and what you can’t. Managing time effectively using goal lists and a tracking system is another helpful strategy, Lazzari adds.

Commenters on the article also had their own ideas, with some saying that employers need to be flexible, but scientists must be willing to be flexible in return—working a few hours on weekends in exchange for taking time off during the week, for example. Others, however, suggested stricter policies to achieve work-life balance, such as working only 9-5 and never bringing work home.

“Work-life balance in science is possible, and it is all about the researcher,” commented Marco Emanuele Favretto on the recent blog. “I have been successful so far [and] I definitely could have done more, but I am a happy person. The secret? Tell your boss that you want to have a life and you can’t dedicate yourself 24/7 to science, or you will burn out in a few months.”

Thomas Backhaus, another commenter on the blog, added that “the term ‘work-life balance’ is really a misnomer. It implies that one gets out of bed, goes to work—and life only starts afterward, which, especially for a scientist, isn’t really how things work.” Backhaus suggested that the focus should be on balancing different types of activities—physical, intellectual, social, etc.—rather than simply categorizing things as either “work” or “life.” For many scientists, their work is their life and can be as enjoyable as spending time with friends and family, Backhaus added.

While work-life balance means different things to different lab professionals, one common thread is the work-until-you-drop attitude drilled into scientists starting in college, where anyone who takes time for themselves is viewed as lazy.

“I think that has been a prevailing sentiment in the scientific community, and I think it’s instilled in us in graduate school where you’re under all this pressure to get the grant work, papers, and dissertation done in a certain period of time,” says Tiffany Roberts, PhD, reference laboratory director for Immucor, Inc.’s site in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She adds that mind-set isn’t always a fit in laboratory medicine, because most of the work is routine and staff are on a schedule. “You’re involved in patient care and the quality has to be high, so it’s less about how many hours you can work and more about maintaining good-quality work and doing what’s right for patient care. And can you do that in a cost-effective but also a time-effective way?”

Juliana Cassoli, a postdoc researcher in the Department of Biochemistry and Tissue Biology at the University of Campinas in Brazil, agrees that the work-until-you-drop attitude is prevalent in the academic sciences.

“In science, there is a glamor, pride, and vanity to say that you are working hard, like 14 hours per day in the lab, doing lots of experiments or many things at the same time, or that you do not have time for anything,” she says, adding that this type of environment can lead to people developing health problems due to stress. Like Roberts, for Cassoli the quality of lab work is more important than the quantity.

Helping lab employees achieve work-life balance

Cassoli says that while her lab does not have official policies to help its graduate or undergraduate students balance lab work with their outside lives, she and the other senior researchers encourage them to improve their time management, so they can focus more on their experiments and activities outside of the lab, rather than menial tasks. For her, work-life balance depends on the person, and it is possible to achieve, even in the busy lab world. “I believe that work-life balance is also a personal decision, the way that you treat your job,” she says.

Being a small clinical lab that’s part of a larger company, Immucor’s Roberts says there have been some challenges in helping her employees balance work with their personal lives. They need to abide by strict policies for time off that have been developed for a larger organization, though they have only seven technicians at their location.

“We had one tech who had a baby and another tech unfortunately lost her husband and has two small children, so it’s been a struggle to help them strike a good work-life balance,” Roberts says. “I’m a younger director so I don’t come from that old-school ‘you have to be here 8 to 5’ mentality. I’ve been really flexible with them. If you want to come in at 10 a.m. after you drop off your kids and stay until 6 or 6:30 p.m., that’s totally fine as long as all your work gets done and we’re being productive and we’re meeting our quality metrics.”

She adds that, despite being restricted by company policies, the organization has been helpful in coming up with creative solutions to situations where those policies are an issue for her site. Roberts has weekly calls with her HR representative to work around any problems, and there are some benefits to being part of a larger company, such as an employee assistance program that offers counseling.

Despite the your-work-should-be-your-life attitude prevalent in the sciences, Roberts, like Cassoli, believes that work-life balance does exist in the lab and that it is important, though she admits it took her around 10 years of therapy to get to that point.

“I used to be, especially in grad school, very focused on my career, and I used to think if I get the career that I want, then that will make me happy and that will be my life, and that will be the source of all fulfillment, contentment, and success,” she says. “And the more I’ve worked through some of my anxieties and challenges, the more I’ve come to realize that there’s more to me than what I do.”

She adds that she still struggles with figuring out how to have a home life that’s as rich as her lab life, and that many people face a similar battle. “If all you do after work is go home and work, then you don’t have a great work-life balance,” Roberts says. “You don’t have a very enriched life outside work. It’s something we all struggle with.”

Downtime for managers

Cassoli agrees that having a life outside work is crucial. “I try to relax when I am out of the lab,” she says. “I stay with my family, walk with my dogs, and play in my band.”

One principal investigator (PI) weighing in on the aforementioned Naturejobs blog under the name “Fred Flintstone,” who works with several students and postdocs, stated that the key to work-life balance in the sciences is to choose a job you enjoy.

“If you’re talking about work-life balance, the implication is you don’t enjoy the work and you do enjoy life outside work,” the writer said. “If that’s the case, do something else; you’ll be better paid and enjoy it more. Science is a great occupation for people who really love science, but a useless career if you don’t.”

However, the PI added that researchers needn’t be shamed into working ridiculously long hours and that downtime is important: “When you can, work hard, and when you can’t, go away with a clean conscience. If working on a Saturday (or in the evening or whatever) allows you to get an experiment done, do it! In exchange, if you want to take a day off or enjoy your holidays or take your kid to the baby gym in the middle of the day, do it! I did.”

As for her work-life balance, Roberts admits that she’s a workaholic, but her employees help her out when they notice she may be working too hard.

“My staff is very cognizant that I’m a workaholic,” she explains. “They recognized that very early on, so fortunately, I have a very supportive staff that, if they’re the last ones leaving and I’m still here, they’ll stop in my office and say, ‘You know, you should probably go home.’”

She adds that teamwork is the key to a good work-life balance no matter where you work, with staff filling in for each other whether someone has a sick child, pet, or some other emergency to attend to at home. “If you’re not supporting each other and you’re not functioning as a good team, then no one gets to have a good work-life balance,” Roberts says. “If you’re functioning as a team and everyone’s willing to pick up a little bit of slack and everyone’s willing to cover [for each other], then you have a lot more flexibility.”

Thanking and recognizing employees who pick up the slack when others need time off is also important, Roberts says, adding that she has one employee whom she calls “Mr. Reliable” because he’s always willing to pitch in. “I know that it’s not always easy to be the go-to person because you’re ‘Mr. Reliable,’ so I definitely try to recognize him and thank him and make sure he knows that we appreciate his efforts.”

Work-life issues for clinical labs

For clinical labs in particular, because they are facing a shortage of technicians, Roberts believes there will be a stronger emphasis on more time-effective ways of doing things in the future. For example, automation could replace repetitive tasks and free up those techs for “higher-yield activities like reporting and interpreting results.”

She adds that clinical labs with on-call staff will likely need to do more to help those employees achieve work-life balance, by being both more flexible and more innovative.

“I think that those labs have a hard time maintaining staff because . . . you do have to give up a lot of your life to work since, if you spend a weekend on call, you can’t really make plans because you may get called in to work,” Roberts explains. “I think the onus has always been on the staff member to maintain [his or her] own work-life balance, and I think that if those labs are going to reduce their turnover and keep their highly trained staff that they’ve put a lot of time and effort into, they’re going to have to take some of the responsibility onto themselves.”

Published In

Sustainable Lab Practices Magazine Issue Cover
Sustainable Lab Practices

Published: April 12, 2017

Cover Story

Featured Article