Research intelligence: how to create a healthy lab environment

Facilitating flexible working hours and showing gratitude towards team members are among the musts for all labs, according to Fernando Maestre

May 9, 2019
Male and female scientists at work in laboratory
Source: iStock

Fernando Maestre was having dinner with another scientist when the inevitable subject of work-life balance came up in conversation. “As is common when two scientists meet, we talked about how difficult it is,” said the professor of ecology at Madrid’s King Juan Carlos University.

In his experience, Professor Maestre said, he had found that negative cultures persisted because of the “belief held by many that in productive research labs, everyone should work long hours, over the weekends and during holidays”. He warned that “many scientists around the world experience a highly competitive environment, which often forces them to become workaholics”.

Rather than put aside his complaints until the next dinner party, Professor Maestre, who leads his own research laboratory, set about drafting a series of tips for peers on how to support and sustain a healthy research environment.

A resulting paper, “Ten simple rules towards healthier research labs”, was published in Plos Biology in April. It included the following selected pieces of advice:

Promote the well-being of your lab members
A wealth of studies into workplace productivity demonstrate that employees across a range of jobs “work more efficiently and more creatively when we are happy”, Professor Maestre's article begins. As such, he writes, it “must be a priority” for principal investigators to ensure that their labs are “places where everyone can work in the best conditions possible while at the same time enjoying doing science".

Practically, this means “putting yourself in the situation of others” and being sensitive to external factors that can affect colleagues’ work, such as family and health problems, he later told Times Higher Education.

In a blog post on Professor Maestre’s paper, Dame Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics and master of Churchill College, Cambridge, describes the article as “helpful”. But she argues that its call for the “banning [of] all forms of harassment and discrimination within the lab” should be strengthened to reflect the fact that harassment and discrimination are “just as unacceptable down the pub or in a conference setting as in the lab and that any behaviour along these lines will have consequences”.

Let people set their own schedules
“As PIs, we should not strictly control lab members’ schedules, and we should be flexible regarding their working preferences,” the paper states. While flexible working has undoubtedly become more commonplace in recent years, there is still a long way to go in getting some workplaces to accept it as “normal”, it says.

It is up to team leaders, he says, to facilitate flexible working arrangements, which could include allowing individuals to work from home where possible and coordinating meetings with childcare needs.

For Julia Buckingham, vice-chancellor of Brunel University London, enabling the option of flexible working hours at every level is “crucial” to ensuring a healthy working environment – and could help to support women and researchers with other protected characteristics in particular. “We are seeing far more examples of flexibility in the workplace, but have we arrived? Of course not,” she told THE.

“University leaders at every level need to understand that failure to allow individuals to set their own schedules is shown to stop women and ethnic minorities from progressing,” she added.

But respect working hours, public holidays and vacations
“The stress associated with this excessive work without a life outside the lab is one of the main reasons behind the increase in mental [health] problems in academia, particularly among early career researchers and young PIs,” the paper states.

“This rule can be seen as contradictory by junior PIs or those who are running labs that are short of labour and other resources,” it explains, “but…it is important to remember…that working for long hours is not a sine qua non condition for being successful as a scientist.”

Joanna Rifkin, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, told THE that one of the best examples of leadership she had seen in a lab came from a PI who “used to come in on holidays on the premise of needing to pick something up from his office…If he found students working (which he did…often), he would ask what the heck they were doing there and tell them to go home.”

Show gratitude
Professor Maestre’s personal favourite piece of advice in the list is rule three: “gratitude is the sign of noble souls”. While the practice of showing gratitude towards fellow lab members “is not as common as it should be”, he said, some might be surprised to learn of the considerable benefits that saying “thank you” can bring. “It helps to build confidence and compromise,” he said.

Providing rapid feedback to team members can also demonstrate that you value their work, he added.

As for his response to naysayers who dismiss his rules as impractical or simply wishful thinking, Professor Maestre suggested that they post the rules prominently on a wall in their lab and set about “giving them a try”.

“Having a nurturing, collaborative and people-centred research environment is not at odds with achieving high standards in terms of funding, training, societal citizenship and research outputs,” he concluded. “You could be surprised by the effects these rules could have.”


Print headline: The rules for creating a healthy lab culture

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