Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business
Young scientist sits in the lab looking stressed

Six Ways to Reduce Work Stress in the Lab

Conflict management, effective prioritization, prompt decision-making, and more can all reduce your employees' stress

Scott D. Hanton, PhD

Scott Hanton is the editorial director of Lab Manager. He spent 30 years as a research chemist, lab manager, and business leader at Air Products and Intertek. He earned...

ViewFull Profile.
Learn about ourEditorial Policies.
Register for free to listen to this article
Listen with Speechify

The news and social media are full of stories about the negative impact of work stress on individuals and organizations. Stress in the workplace can have large negative consequences for lab staff and lab managers. While the challenges of doing technical scientific work at the bench can be significant, that doesn’t drive most of the stress-related problems in the lab. Most of the stress that beats people down is driven by unfortunate interactions between people, lack of resources, and the absence of decisions.

Here are six ways that lab managers can reduce the stress on lab staff. The key to delivering these improvements is to be proactive and address stressful situations while they are small and before they grow into insurmountable obstacles. Taking proactive action often requires the courage to step into a difficult situation, but that is far better than trying to solve long-standing problems.

Get training in Conflict Management and Resolution and earn CEUs.One of over 25 IACET-accredited courses in the Academy.
Conflict Management and Resolution Course

Conflict management

Resolving people conflicts in the lab can be hard. It is important to be aware of how staff are interacting and to take action before a lab conflict evolves into a full-blown war between two factions in the lab. It is vital to hear both sides of a conflict before moving towards a decision. One key to resolving conflict is to understand the needs of both sides. Once the needs are understood, lead a conversation that seeks a win-win outcome. In these situations, people get what they need, but not what they want. Resolving conflict restores the ability of everyone on staff to work together to deliver the science, rather than focusing on who is winning and who is retaliating.

Advocating for assets

Having insufficient people, equipment, and space becomes very stressful for lab staff. They need the help and tools to solve the difficult technical problems in the lab. To better advocate for lab assets, generate a prioritized list of needs for the lab. These will be the investments that solve the top problems the lab faces. Once the top needs are identified, build business cases for them that clearly identify why the need is important, how it will be solved, and the full costs and benefits of the solution. Calculate a return on investment (ROI) that shows the costs and benefits in currency. Present the business case and ROI to line management with a clear plan of action.

Make prompt decisions

One of the key responsibilities of lab management is to make the key decisions for the benefit of the lab. The absence of these decisions causes the system to pause, wait, and linger. It is very hard for lab staff to remain productive and motivated while they wait for decisions. Collect and analyze data to help inform the decision and ensure that the opinions and ideas of lab staff are heard and understood. Then make the decision. Most decisions around the lab can be improved or changed depending on what happens next. It is rare for the lab manager to have all of the input and knowledge desired before having to decide. Know that a suboptimal decision is much better than no decision.

Dealing with difficult people

It doesn’t take long for a difficult or toxic person in the lab to create stress for everyone else. It is the lab manager’s responsibility to address toxic behavior and enable the rest of the lab to get back to the science. The best way to address difficult behavior is to shine the bright light of day on the actions. Most difficult people act in the shadows and expect a lack to direct interference. A good way to illuminate this kind of behavior is by asking questions and reinforcing the lab’s positive culture. If coaching doesn’t fix the problem, it is time to start documenting the issues and find a way to exit toxic people from the lab.

Expanding coverage

Feeling like you’re the only person who can deliver is a key source of stress. Staff need downtime and vacations to relax and refresh. Feeling the need to work long hours, and not able to take time off, can be a source of significant stress. Ensure that everyone in the lab has suitable coverage through planned cross-training and development. Build coverage maps to show where the gaps in training are, and to remind staff that there are others who can be counted on to help. To keep skills fresh, ensure everyone in the coverage plan has the opportunity to work in their coverage areas on a consistent basis.

Effective prioritization

A key source of stress is having too much work to do. Lab managers have a key role to play in prioritizing the work, so that the most important work gets done, and staff understand what can be postponed. An effective prioritization tool was developed by Dwight Eisenhower. Map all of the work against its importance and its urgency. Do the high importance and high urgency work first. Follow that by scheduling the high importance and low urgency work. Budget a set amount of time for the low importance and high urgency work, and stop all of the low importance and low urgency work. This prioritization will enable lab staff to be more productive and lower their stress.

These ideas will enable lab managers to lower the negative work stress felt by staff. If that stress is allowed to fester, lab managers risk the loss of important people and their knowledge, poor productivity, lower quality results, more safety incidents, and low morale. It is vital that lab managers take action to prevent those negative outcomes.

To improve the ability to recognize these situations and to improve the skills necessary to address stress reduction, lab managers can take continuing education programs to further develop their leadership and management skills, like the lab management certificate provided by the Lab Manager Academy.

For more information about the Lab Manager Academy and its courses, please visit