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finding work-life balance during a pandemic

Finding Balance in and Out of the Lab, during a Pandemic

Lab leaders share their strategies for ensuring their staff have time to decompress from the added stress

by Sara Goudarzi
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Establishing work-life balance has always been a juggling act, both for lab staff and those in management. In addition to taking care of their own families and outside commitments while handling work duties, lab managers are in charge of helping their staff achieve similar balance. This challenge took on a unique turn as COVID-19 was declared a pandemic this March and labs had to adjust to the demands of working in an environment that accounted for a contagious virus with serious consequences. Some labs cut back on in-person hours and their workforce, while others, tasked with testing related to SARS-CoV-2, had to kick things into high gear.

For Helen Reid, the acting lab director for the Vermont Public Health Laboratory, things ramped up quickly. Based in Colchester, Vermont, the laboratory for the Department of Public Health employs about 45 staff members in its three main programs, microbiology and inorganic and organic chemistry. In a typical year, the staff processes around 30,000 tests.

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But as the only laboratory in Vermont testing for COVID-19, the volume of work has significantly increased since March. Just for COVID-19 alone, over the last six months, the lab staff has processed some 50,000 tests.

“At the very beginning of the pandemic, we pretty quickly determined what was believed to be essential testing and essentially put on hold programs that were determined to be non-essential,” Reid says. Staff who worked on non-essential testing, thus, worked from home; but everyone else—primarily the microbiology program staff—was based in the building to conduct COVID testing and also a small menu of other vital testing, such as tests for rabies, tuberculosis, measles, and the flu.

Things were different for Jackie Brackman, director of laboratory operations at Brookside Laboratories, Inc. based in New Bremen, Ohio. The oldest laboratory and/or consultant association in North America, her lab provides various testing for agricultural soils, sports turf, green roofs, golf courses, animal feeds, manures, composts, fertilizers, fruits, irrigation water, sludges, and drinking water, among others. So, given that their work was not directly related to the current pandemic, Brackman had to take a dissimilar approach to managing the lab’s approximately 50 employees.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we had to drastically reduce our staffing to help do our part in preventing the spread,” Brackman says. “This lasted less than a month and we were back to upstaffing because our incoming samples demanded this. We now offer some staff the ability to work from home when needed but, otherwise, our employee’s schedules have not been affected.”

Both of these situations presented their own unique challenges. Add to that the closure of schools and cancelation of recreational programs, partners who either lost jobs or had to also work from home, and the added responsibilities made maintaining work-life balance for lab staff trickier than pre-pandemic times.

Finding balance in a pandemic world

To account for the circumstances of today’s world, managers are looking for ways to ensure that their staff are not overwhelmed with the extra responsibilities they are now tasked with, both at work and at home.

“There have definitely been days where our sample volumes are so high that staff are working a 10-hour day, or sometimes more than that,” Reid says. “And so what we’ve tried to do is move to a shift schedule. So, individuals who are doing testing or working on COVID directly will work no more than three or four days a week and then have at least two or three days off in a row, just so that they can step away from the work and rest.”

Further, upper management wants to reduce the potential for overuse injuries and protect their staff. Specifically, the COVID-19 tests require a lot of repetitive motion such as taking caps off vials. To that effect, management has increased the number of staff members working in that program so that there’s less opportunity for any one individual to be conducting that one motion for an extended period of time. Upper management has also looked at automating some routine activities by acquiring multi-channel pipettes, an infrared vortexer, and an instrument capper. Additionally, the leadership made sure to allow the staff to unplug from work despite the increased workload demands.

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“Over the summer, we wanted to make sure that every single staff person had at least a week off of vacation, so they could spend time with their families,” Reid explains. “And that was challenging because some individuals really wanted to go to areas that would require quarantine when they came back, so we just…worked through the scheduling issues and made it work. It was something I felt at a leadership level that we really needed to commit to so we did make that happen for every single staff person who requested the time off.”

Reid and others in charge also try to emphasize the importance of breaks and taking lunches. During the day, they provide lunch to staff. And just recently, they began setting up what they’re calling a “quiet room”—a space adjacent to the laboratory building the size of a large living room with cushy chairs and big windows.

“We’re going to put some water and tea and things in there so people can just go and have some space away from the laboratory and the testing activity [where] it can get kind of hectic and stressful, especially if we’re experiencing multiple outbreaks,” she explains.

In this together

It’s been a time-tested good management practice to make staff feel appreciated for the work they are doing. Not only does it lead to happier and healthier employees, but has also been shown to improve productivity, leading ultimately to a more balanced life for employees.

Brackman, who like others had to roll with the demands of the current situation, has always been aware of showing how much she values the work of her staff through an assortment of company events, including monthly luncheons, employee appreciation events, and team building activities where the employees forget about work for a few minutes and just enjoy their coworkers. Leadership takes the opportunity during the monthly luncheons to update the staff on their current status so they are informed and have time to ask questions.

Despite the challenges that the pandemic presents, she and others in management continue to utilize those principles.

“We have taken the ‘we are in this together’ approach and employees from different labs are helping other labs out so the work can be completed in a timely manner,” Brackman explains. “If an employee has children at home, we have always been understanding and make sure their family comes first.” Meeting the needs of their employees has always been Brackman’s style of management, as she believes happier staff leads to accomplished goals.

Reid also uses a similar approach of ensuring that the work the staff is doing during the current circumstances is valued. For example, she and others in leadership hosted a picnic barbeque for staff in the middle of summer and drafted COVID-specific award certificates for every single person in the building. The awards included “always has your back” or “calm under fire.”

“[We] tried to just acknowledge that every single person in the building is contributing to this effort and tried to call out the unique contributions they’re making because it’s exhausting, being in response mode,” Reid says. “I think we had underestimated the impact it can have on staff and so we have tried to be conscious of that and look for even just small opportunities to celebrate our staff.”

She is also mindful of ensuring the staff can serve their families as needed, especially with the extra demands placed on many with childcare, working from home or extra hours, and taking care of potentially sick family members. In fact, in mid-summer, she sent out a survey asking people if they anticipated any conflicts or issues with schedules heading into the fall semester, as she anticipated a surge in cases, and asked what accommodations people might need or if they knew already if their schedules would be limited.

“There’s just a lot of folks who have been here for a number of years and just know each other as professionals, but also personally, and so we try to really support one another and have each others’ backs and think about the whole person, not just the tasks that they’re doing in the laboratory,” she adds.