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Heemstra Lab students following a 5k fun run at a recent lab retreat. Image: Jen Heemstra

‘Self-care first’: Scientist prioritises wellbeing in lab policy

“Your mental and physical health are by far the most important consideration in all that you do while in our lab. Moreover, success should not come at the cost of maintaining your interests/hobbies or healthy relationships in your life.”

This passage reads like a workplace fantasy, but is the new reality in Jen Heemstra’s lab. The Associate Professor of Chemistry from Emory University in Atlanta in the US posted her draft lab wellbeing policy on Twitter. She invited suggestions, yet largely received adulation.

This is going in our lab policy now…with credit to you @jenheemstra

— Jonathan (@JLHabif) October 13, 2018

 

This is brilliant! I remember going to the lab for months with an ankle support despite the doctor telling me I should rest. Only comment from my supervisor was “oh, you’re not limping around anymore” once I removed it, 3 months later.

     — AnnaC (@AnnaCupani) October 14, 2018

Other excerpts from the draft policy include the following:

“If you are not feeling well…take the time off you need to seek out help and take care of yourself. If you are struggling…and wondering: “Is it okay to go see a counselor instead of setting up that PCR?” the answer is “Absolutely! Get the help that you need.

“Being an undergraduate, grad student, or postdoc is stressful. We all care about you and are here to support you – just let us know how we can help.

“Being ambitious and working hard are part of our lab culture, but it should come from a perspective of driving yourself out of the fun of pushing your limits and exploring what you are capable of. The key is to know your limits.

“If you are a member of our group for multiple years, the chances that a life situation (or multiple life situations) will arise are fairly high. In these situations, the top priority is taking care of yourself and dealing with the situation.”

“The need for a written policy in this area was borne from posts I was seeing on Twitter from grad students and postdocs who were worried their advisor might be upset if they took time away from research for self-care – things like going to see their counselor, taking a ‘mental health day’ to prevent burnout, or leaving lab during ‘work hours’ to go to the gym,” Heemstra told Campus Review.

“While I talk often with my lab members about the fact that we have flexible work hours and that their health and well-being come first, I realised that it would be much more powerful to put it in writing.”

That this kind of policy is novel seems contrary to human dignity. Shouldn’t we all be entitled to a redress our mental ills, enjoy a work/life balance and take care of our dependants? Heemstra explained why students often feel they can’t do these things: because they’re not employees, they don’t have wellbeing protections like personal or sick leave that are afforded to other university personnel. These protections are especially critical for students, who are often under immense pressure to succeed due to in-built power structures, where their career progression can depend on a single individual. In this environment, students often sacrifice their wellbeing for work.

Consequently, “there is a documented mental health crisis among graduate students and postdocs,” Heemstra offered. “I think many, if not most, advisors want to be supportive of wellbeing, but aren’t always sure how to communicate that directly to students. In the absence of that communication, the default for students can be to assume it is not okay to take care of themselves.”

This may soon change. The reaction to her draft policy was “overwhelmingly positive”, and she hopes that, for labs that don’t currently have a policy, students might be able to use the document as a conversation-starter amongst themselves or with their advisors.

Yet policies like these only work if they are followed – by students and faculty. “I realise that if I have this policy, I need to ‘walk the walk’ – if someone disappears for three days, I need to respond to that with trust and refrain from feeling frustration about the lab work that didn’t get done. This may sound obvious, but it is a huge battle against our human nature, especially in the high-pressure context of academia,” Heemstra said.

In her case, this also means looking after herself. “My self-care right now mostly consists of exercise, so I make sure I give myself permission to do things like leave work and go for an afternoon run, especially if I’m feeling overwhelmed or stressed.

“Rather than sneaking out of my office and directly to the stairwell, I walk past our lab and offices in my workout clothes so that the group knows that I am also making use of the policy by taking time for myself.”

Dr Sean Elliott of Boston University’s The Elliott Group – a chemistry lab – also formally acknowledges the value of self-care in the workplace; he consulted to Heemstra on her lab policy. While his lab doesn’t have a standalone wellbeing policy, it has a live Google document that all lab participants can contribute to. It covers topics from ‘Core Values’ to ‘Group Expectations for Success’.

As for why these need to be written down, Elliott said that the trickle-down of values “rarely occurs through anecdotal contact”.

“In the fairly recent past (say, the past 4-5 years) I’ve noticed that my own life only gets more complicated, stress only increases, it is important (if not essential) for my group to have a document that describes not just logistical things of how we work, but written statements about why we work the way I want to work,” he told Campus Review.

Other reasons for the document include making expectations clear in the #MeTooSTEM era, and hoping to better the field overall: “I thought this might be one small step forward.”

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