Handling Stress in a Laboratory EnvironmentRyan White
For many scientists, working in a laboratory is their dream job and they put large amounts of time and passion into their research. However, they can also be quite high-stress environments, especially when there is a lot of competition between teams or you are working on a particularly important project. This can lead to a stressful work environment that begins to impact your work life balance, or even your health.
Handling stress at work is an essential skill if you don’t want your dream job to start feeling like the job from hell during periods of high pressure. From taking the time to relax to learning how to take control of your workload, there are plenty of ways you can minimise stress and maximise your enjoyment at work.
To give you a helping hand, we’ve put together this guide to a few little changes you can make to effectively handle stress in the lab.
Understanding the root of your workplace stress is the first step in minimising it or managing your own response. In the sciences, funding is often difficult to secure and scientists compete heavily to win funding for their research. This can often mean that labs are very competitive environments, with something of a ‘sink or swim’ attitude to employee wellbeing. Limited job opportunities and the difficulty of succeeding in the field can exacerbate this issue.
Lack of support and the comparative lack of financial reward can also make science a stressful industry to work in. Flexibility around maternity and paternity leave, as well as childcare, can often be quite limited, making it difficult to maintain family responsibilities. Low wages and the pressure to secure funding can also affect scientists, meaning that many lab workers put in long hours of work with quite limited remuneration. This can make it very difficult to maintain a healthy work life balance.
It might sound overly simplistic, but just taking a moment to breathe deeply and collect your thoughts can help you handle stress more effectively. When you can feel the stress beginning to build, try breathing in deeply through your nose, holding the breath for a few moments, and then exhaling slowly through the mouth. Continue to do this a few times and you will start to feel a little calmer. Obviously, stay well away from the fume cupboard during this process.
This is a difficult one to get used to in a highly competitive environment, but learning to say ‘no’ is an important skill for minimising stress. Many of us think we must say ‘yes’ to any additional work for fear of missing out or looking bad, but this can lead to us becoming overloaded. Learn to say ‘no’ when people ask for help or additional tasks completing if you genuinely do not have time. It will allow you to do the tasks you already have to a higher standard and empower you to manage your own stress levels at the same time. As long as it is clear you are always willing to take on work when you have time, no one will think any less of you and you’ll find people respect your boundaries much more.
When work is piling up in the lab, it can be tempting to skip your lunch break and work through some of the sample backlogs instead. Failing to take proper breaks can massively increase your stress levels, however, meaning that you end up both hungry and stressed. You can’t perform at your best unless you are well rested, so taking breaks is essential to making sure you do your job well. People who fail to take breaks also make more mistakes, which can ruin an entire experiment in a lab setting. Set aside half an hour to eat a sandwich and relax a little; you’ll work faster when you get back to the lab anyway.
Sometimes you find yourself in a stressful situation at work that you have no control over, but changing the way you think about the problem can actually help you cope with it better. Try to focus on the things in life that are important, rather than letting work stresses take over.
If work is very stressful, try to leave it behind in the lab rather than taking it home with you. Focus on spending time with your family and friends, planning some fun activities away from the office. Don’t answer any emails outside of the lab and even consider turning off your phone if you’re really struggling to switch off from the job. It might feel like you will miss out on something important, but you will be better able to deal with the pressures of work if you are refreshed on Monday morning.
Limiting distractions when you’re in the lab can also be key to managing stress, by making you feel less busy and overloaded. Lots of scientists now spend more time at the computer than the bench and it can be tempting to pick up your phone or browse the internet at the same time. This can distract you from the job in hand, making it harder to concentrate on completing your task list.
Emails and internet communications can also make it difficult to focus on completing tasks. Try designating a set time when you answer emails and enquiries, so the rest of the day can be dedicated to focusing fully on completing other tasks. You’ll soon feel like your workload is much more manageable.
If your lab could do with redesigning to create a calmer and more efficient work environment, the team at InterFocus can help. For more information about our bespoke fitted labs, visit our homepage or call our team on 01223 894 833.