Workplace Wellbeing For Life Scientists
By Rachelle Balez and Heema Kumari Nilesh Vyas
Most of us have heard the saying: “Do what you love, and you'll never work a day in your life”. As scientists, we love what we do, however at times it can feel more like do what you love, and you'll work incredibly hard all the time with little work / life balance, while also taking everything very personally.
If this rings true, you are not alone. And considering most of us will spend close to 100,000 hours at work over the course of our life, it is important to recognise the impact our workplace can have on our wellbeing. If your workplace is not a pleasant environment, then you’ll find yourself dreading much more than Monday mornings.
For each lab member to work at their best, they need the support of the group as there will be times when each of us is feeling stressed or overworked. It is essential at these times that everyone knows what is expected of them and where to find help. Luckily, there are a few simple things that can be implemented to enhance and promote workplace wellbeing for scientists. We have spoken to members of different labs that represent different positions to compile these five simple but important changes that can be put in place by lab groups to help foster workplace wellbeing.
1. Establish ground rules
Despite working independently on our own projects, as scientists we are still part of a dynamic lab team, accountable to supervisors and collaborators, colleagues, and students. Our roles span multiple positions, from working in the lab to teaching and supervising, but also learning and being taught. This can be challenging as roles and expectations become blurred.
Establishing a set of lab group ground rules is a simple and effective way to manage the expectations of the group. Ground rules are agreed-to guidelines that define how individuals are expected to communicate, participate, collaborate, and support one other.
When research scientist Cécile Godde from CSIRO became a member of a newly formed lab group, resulting from the merging of several teams with different skills and knowledge, she ran an exercise to collectively set the new group ground rules. Cécile said: “This would help us build a foundation of trust and respect that is crucial to ensure healthy work relationships, individual wellbeing, and successful collaborations”.
Cécile invited people to form groups of five and think about what ground rules they wanted to ensure a safe, open, and constructive work environment. Ideas were sourced from looking back at what made past discussions or work relationships satisfactory or unsatisfactory. By building these ground rules collectively, it ensures everyone’s thoughts are captured and that individuals are accountable for maintaining respect within the group.
Once established, ground rules should be displayed in a common area where team members are able to regularly remind themselves of them, especially before large meetings or prior to having difficult conversations. Since establishing their ground rules Cécile said: “I am now much more careful not to interrupt people when they talk as I realised how much this could affect some of us.”
Ground rules are an efficient way to collectively define norms that allow lab groups to function in a respectful, collaborative, and inclusive manner – especially when important and complex decisions need to be made. A quick Google search will bring up many examples on how to run a ground rules exercise with your lab group.
2. Write a lab manual
There is no doubt that life in the lab can be busy. Between running experiments, attending meetings, teaching, responding to emails and analysing data it can be difficult to find the time to look after yourself, let alone help others. At times like this, knowing what is expected of your workload and finding answers to simple questions can be daunting, especially for new members of the lab who may not be as confident when it comes to asking for help.
A lab manual can be a great way to ensure answers to common but important questions are accessible at all times. Lab manuals lay out the expectations for all members of the lab, along with providing resources and guidelines to assist members through a variety of tasks, situations, and roles.
In an article published in Nature, Assistant Professor Mariam Aly from the Department of Psychology at Columbia University, New York City, detailed why she started a lab manual when she established her lab. Recognising that she was now responsible for the scientific advancement and wellbeing of her lab members, Asst Prof Aly used her lab manual to introduce her trainees to her research philosophy, while also outlining her expectations of them and what they could expect from her.
Just as every lab is different, a lab manual is going to be unique depending on the needs and philosophy of the lab. Britt Berning, a PhD student in the Walker Lab at the Queensland Brain Institute, comments that her PI, Dr Adam Walker, developed a PowerPoint lab manual that the group runs through when new members join. Britt says: “It sets in stone the expectations for the lab regarding data integrity and keeping up with the scientific literature. More importantly, it specifies how lab members are expected to treat each other, the state we are expected to leave the workplace in (lab / office / server) and reminds us that we are here to share ideas and expertise and to support one another.” Britt has found that by having the expectations of the lab explicitly stated, it helps to make her feel comfortable and confident in the workplace.
Although starting a lab manual may require a significant time investment, in the long run it will save time and promote wellbeing as each person knows what is expected of them and where to find help. If you are interested in writing a lab manual for your group, Asst Prof Aly’s lab manual is publicly available as an example.
3. Create a lab duties roster
Something very simple, that may be overlooked in the daily hustle and bustle of life in the lab is the importance of a clean and organised lab space. Clean workplaces not only assist in maintaining a professional setting but also contribute to a sense of wellbeing both individually and collectively by reducing potential sources of friction. We’ve all experienced that moment when you find unwashed glassware that you need for an experiment, or times when it feels like you are continually cleaning up after the rest of the lab. These experiences can lead to lab members feeling taken advantage of, and thus act as a source of unnecessary and avoidable conflict.
Dr Diane Ly, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Wollongong is a firm believer in clean and organised lab spaces and is an active proponent of executing lab organisation. At the beginning of each year, a set checklist of cleaning and lab re-stocking duties is established and assigned to the core lab members who will be present for the entirety of the year. This cleaning roster is made available to all lab members, with a weekly email sent to remind the group who is in charge of lab cleaning for that week. More formally, each lab meeting has space allocated to discussing any issues that may have cropped up during the week’s cleaning tasks, such as broken or missing lab items, or stocks that may be low and need replenishing.
Overall, Dr Ly believes that something as simple as a lab cleaning roster is advantageous in ensuring fair and even distribution of the lab cleaning duties. This not only ensures that the lab is kept organised, but is a great way of facilitating communication, fostering a sense of individual and collective awareness of what's going on in the lab, while helping to identify any problems before lab members feel exploited.
4. Organise social activities
Promoting wellbeing within the lab shouldn’t be hard work and organising lab social activities or outings can be a fun way to facilitate team bonding, help release stress, and build emotional resilience. When lab members are overworked and stressed, individual performance can be affected, which can adversely impact the individual’s wellbeing and how they interact with the lab group. Unfortunately, this can influence the wider lab group dynamics through misunderstandings and conflictive behaviour, further exacerbating the stress and isolation individuals may already be feeling. If left unchecked, this can cause a rise in more serious problems such as absenteeism from work.
Recognising when your colleagues are feeling stressed is important, so making space for social wellness is necessary for a healthy lab group. Promoting social wellbeing in the lab can be as simple as having a cake for birthdays or farewells, celebrating paper submissions and other successes through lab group lunches or dinners, to more physically involved activities like indoor bowling, or hiking. Dr Ly comments: “I often took initiative to organise these functions because I truly believe that celebrating our achievements is an important process of being a team. In addition to bonding, I believe that these social gatherings were a way to support each other, which would ultimately increase harmony in the lab space”.
Dr Ly’s tips for ensuring the success of social activities includes:
i) get the group involved in choosing a mutually agreeable activity
ii) collectively decide on a date/time that's most suitable for all / most, and
iii) give reminders in the form of emails (or even personally chasing up people) when the event is drawing closer
Organising regular social activities outside of work helps to release stress, as well as nurture ongoing and supportive relationships that increase collective wellbeing, which is often reflected in greater collaboration and productivity at work.
5. Communication and trust
Even within the most organised and respectful lab groups, there will be times when more serious issues or conflicts may arise, both for individuals or between members. At moments like these we look to our supervisors and senior colleagues for guidance and direction on how to resolve these issues while conducting ourselves as members of a team. One of the most important foundations when it comes to conflict resolution is open communication and trust.
Dr Martina Sanderson-Smith is a group leader and supervisor at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute, University of Wollongong, to a group of four PhD students, a post-doctoral researcher, a research assistant/co-supervisor, and at any given time, up to 3 undergraduate students. Dr Sanderson-Smith believes in leading by example, with open communication as a key factor in ensuring the smooth running of her lab. Dr Sanderson-Smith invites discussion with new lab members regarding their goals to ensure that as a supervisor and lab head, she can provide support tailored to the needs of individuals in her lab. This early conversation not only facilitates the setting of clear expectations and goals but also builds trust, rapport and a sense of openness.
As there are a variety of personalities and people with different values and backgrounds in most lab groups, building this early foundation of trust and communication is important when times of stress or conflict undoubtedly arise. When conflict does arise, Dr Sanderson-Smith suggests that boundaries and expectations are to be made clear very early on to all members of the lab group as to how each lab member should treat each other. Another supervisor (who wishes to remain anonymous), agrees, further suggesting regular meetings to facilitate immediate discussion and provide an opportunity for airing out any problems. This can help resolve conflicts before the issue escalates and negatively impacts not just the members directly involved, but the group collectively. Moreover, both suggest that in these situations, supervisors should remain objective, impartial and fair – and listen to all individuals involved before making a decision towards the next step forward in conflict resolution. Overall, Dr Sanderson-Smith believes: “It is a responsibility of the supervisor to do what they can to maintain workplace wellbeing and a safe environment for people to work in.”
On a more personal level, the topic of mental health can be a difficult one to broach if there is a lack of trust and open communication, due to perceived negative stigma, fear or embarrassment. However, Dr Sanderson-Smith believes that the support she can offer should not just be experimental and career orientated stating “I try and make checking in on my group members mental health a regular part of our formal meetings – just asking the question “Are you OK?” and encouraging people to make time in their schedule for downtime”. It is important to note that this should not replace professional diagnosis or counselling, but rather provide support to get professional help if needed. These kinds of conversations can reduce misunderstandings as to why a lab member may be struggling to hit deadlines, seem disengaged, or displaying notable absenteeism. By being open about mental-health, strategies can be put in place to provide better support to alleviate any lab associated pressures that may be contributing to ill-mental health.
Overall, simple initiatives like clear ground rules that outline how individuals are expected to communicate and interact, in combination with a lab manual and lab duties roster, which set out the expectations and responsibilities of each individual within the group, can actively promote workplace wellbeing. This, coupled with regular social activities will help to foster trust , and open communication within the group, which will help to minimise more serious conflicts or facilitate quick conflict resolution when it does arise. There will always be ups and downs in our lives and workplaces, but if we are each aware and respectful of the needs of those around us, we can work to ensure workplace wellbeing, which will increase our work satisfaction, productivity and ultimately lead to better science.
Rachelle Balez is a PhD student at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute, whose work focuses on understanding Alzheimer’s disease by generating brain cells from patient skin cells. She is passionate about equality in STEM and has recently returned from Antarctica with the Homeward Bound women in science leadership initiative. Rachelle is also Chair of the Student Body Committee for the Australasian Neuroscience Society, where she is working to help support the needs of neuroscience students across Australasia. As well as her love for science, Rachelle is a practicing artist with a Bachelor's degree in creative arts and actively works to communicate the beauty of science through art.
Heema Kumari Nilesh Vyas is a PhD student at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute, whose work focuses on understanding Group A Streptococcus (GAS) biofilms that may be present in cases of GAS pharyngitis that simply do not respond to antibiotic treatment. She is passionate about antimicrobial resistance, and after her PhD, wishes to continue her journey in understanding the role bacterial biofilms play in chronic infections. She is also interested in gender equality and equity in STEM. Moreover, as a biracial South Asian woman in STEM, Heema firmly believes in the importance of diversity, representation, and inclusivity of women of colour. As such she is particularly focused on how race, as well as other intersections (age, disability and sexuality) further limits or impedes women’s access to opportunities in STEM.
Additional support for early career life scientists
One of the things we’re most passionate about is supporting early career life scientists. If you liked this blog, here are some other guides and resources that you may find helpful:
- The Life Scientists' Guide to Wellbeing
- The Life Scientists' Guide for New PhD Students
- The Most Common PhD Problems & How to Get Past Them
- View all of our guides
- Apply for a Travel Grant: every month we give away $500 to PhD students and Postdocs so that they can attend a scientific conference. Give it a go - it's really easy to apply.
- Read advice from other scientists - in our Interviews with Scientists' series
- Molarity Calculator: a quick and easy way to calculate the mass, volume or concentration required for making a solution
- Dilution Calculator: an easy way to work out how to dilute stock solutions of known concentrations
- Mini-reviews, Pathway Posters & Product Guides: a set of technical resources to answer your questions on a wide range of topics and to help you get started quickly
- And - when you get to the stage of planning your experiments, don't forget that we offer a range of agonists, antagonists, inhibitors, activators, antibodies and fluorescent tools at up to half the price of other suppliers (check out our price comparison table to see for yourself!). The range includes:
And finally - don't forget to check back in to the Hello Bio Blog - with features from experts, posts on lab support, events, competitions and some fun stuff along the way!