Healthy lab, happy scientist

Healthy lab, happy scientist

Young scientists worldwide experience major mental health concerns. The increasing workload plays a key role in the mental crisis currently facing academia. But how should we deal with this daily pressure? How can we ensure we stay happy in our work?

Young scientists struggle with significant mental health problems. Recent numbers indicate that more than one third of PhD students all over the world experience mild to severe symptoms of anxiety and depression. These strikingly high levels of mental health issues are starting to ring alarm bells in academia.

High workload
The increasing workload seems key to understanding these mental health concerns. Recently there has been growing attention for the pressures scientists experience: pressure to publish their research, to secure further funding, and to obtain a permanent position. Awareness of this issue is rising, and more and more people are speaking out against the workload and calling for a change in culture. Changes at the level of institutions are essential to ensure a healthier academic workforce in the (near) future. But in the meantime we mustn’t forget to deal with the challenges we experience on a day-to-day basis.

Healthy lab
How can we reduce the level of daily stress and stay a happy scientist? One important message is: you’re not alone! A recent special issue of Nature entitled “How to grow a healthy lab” taps right into this issue. A happy scientist works in a healthy lab environment. Surprisingly, until now lab health was rarely discussed. Probably because the solutions for creating and maintaining a healthy lab with productive, creative, and happy lab members are complex and involve multiple factors on different levels. Positive ingredients are: communication, inclusivity, career prospects, training, and possibilities to interact with other lab members… preferably with good coffee. Yet there is no simple solution or manual that provides the optimal conditions for people to be, and remain happy scientists. But maybe a few general tips will prove helpful:

First, do not handle your daily challenges all by yourself.
Even if in our work we may sometimes be or feel alone, research is a journey we all take. Sharing both the good and the bad with your colleagues gives you the opportunity not only to handle negative experiences better, but also to derive more joy from positive experiences. It will also enhance openness and transparency within your lab, and these too are essential for a healthy lab environment. Research shows that for postdocs, a good atmosphere in the lab is an even more important factor for higher life satisfaction than publication records.

One way to encourage peer discussion on daily issues is by means of peer feedback or consultation. The idea is to constructively discuss work-related issues and to think of solutions for the person who has brought up a specific issue. To be successful, peer feedback needs to take place among equals, in a small group around 5 to 6 people, in a confidential manner, in regular meetings, and in a disciplined format. The members of the peer feedback group need to show up, and everything can be discussed in the group without leaving the room. So, peer feedback does not necessarily take place in a lab setting; in fact, it might even be preferable to choose a different venue. Another advantage of peer feedback group is that you create a network of peers from different labs/disciplines that is essential in all stages of your research career.

Second, take a daily break to stay focused.
It is impossible to stay focused and productive for hours on end. Take a break during the day: go for a walk, play table tennis with a colleague, or enjoy the sun to recharge your batteries and be able to focus again. Research has shown that if you are happy you are more likely to be productive. So, working day in day out will not increase your productivity, but taking daily breaks to stay happy will!

Third, work-life balance.
Science doesn’t stop when you close the door of your office. Thinking is an ongoing process. Nevertheless, creating a balance between your work and your personal life is a protective factor for mental health concerns. Indeed, research among PhD students in Belgium confirms that work-family conflict is a major stressor and a risk for mental health concerns. Discussing this issue of how to improve your work-life balance helps. Openness about how to combine work and family is essential at all career levels, and this too is something you don’t have to deal with alone.

So, how do we stay mentally and physically fit so we can do the research we love doing? Even though there is no one-size-fits-all solution, these three tips may prove helpful: i) you’re not alone: share your ups and downs; ii) take a daily break to stay focused; and iii) optimize your work-life balance. Because in the end, a happy scientist is what we all want to be.