The past few years have been busy for the life sciences sector. As scientists around the world have hurried to meet global demands for vaccines and other COVID-19 health treatments, and others have carried on conducting important research in areas like cancer treatment, diabetes management, and more during a pandemic, burnout rates have risen greatly.
According to Fiona Simpson, a cancer researcher based in Australia, consistently high rates of stress are a natural result of the cyclical nature of scientific research and demands on scientists to generate results under increasingly substandard conditions. “I love the work I do,” she says. “The problem is the conditions that we work under. We work every night, we read theses, we review for journals, we sit on grant panels, all for free. I basically have two full-time jobs.”
Burnout is a challenge for lab managers and lab leadership teams alike, and takes a strategic approach to maintain positive morale, inspire high energy, and lead to meaningful results in the lab.
There are many ways that individuals and entire research teams can overcome burnout using intentional teambuilding strategies and a culture of transparency. Read on for five ways scientists can stay motivated in their research, particularly during times of uncertainty, and build resilience.
Regardless of your professional responsibilities, it’s natural to feel unmotivated or burned out by work from time to time. In many cases, feeling burned out is our body’s way of telling us that it’s time to cool off and focus on lowering our stress levels.
As of 2021, only 58% of scientists report being somewhat or very satisfied in their current position (a ten year industry low). For many, such sudden professional dissatisfaction is a direct result of the demands the COVID-19 pandemic have put on the industry, with 54% of scientists agreeing that their job satisfaction had worsened in the past year.
So, what are scientists to do when experiencing a bout of unmotivation, low energy, or frustration with a lack of research results? Here are five ideas to stay motivated during the ups, downs, and in-betweens of the biotech R&D process.
One of the most common causes of burnout is a failure to see how one’s personal actions affect those around them. When scientists are spending all of their time doing heads-down, solitary work it is natural to begin feeling disconnected from the bigger picture over time.
To regain some motivation, take the time to reevaluate the broader applications of your research. What are your long term goals? Who will benefit from your research? By connecting your everyday responsibilities and actions to a larger, external goal, scientists are able to rejuvenate the personal connection they have with their work and reignite their initial motivation for starting their research.
It’s easy to feel isolated from your community when experiencing burnout, especially if you are under the impression that you’re the only one struggling to stay motivated at work. When you pause to reconnect with your community — like your work friends, peers researching the same fields, or the broader scientific community — you’ll feel a revitalized sense of purpose in your work.
Connecting with your community can look like anything you want it to. If you are looking to blow off some steam by cracking jokes with like minded scientists, try an online community like r/labrats on Reddit. If your ideal way to overcome burnout is to dive even deeper into your work, attend an industry event or workshop and use it as a chance to network while you’re at it.
Networking and building community doesn’t have to stop at the four walls of your lab, and the pandemic showed that virtual collaboration is powerful and within reach for anyone with access to a Wifi connection.
Motivation and inspiration are two sides of the same coin. For many, trying to regain some semblance of motivation is nearly impossible without feeling inspired by the work being done. To find inspiration, start by breaking out of your routine and seek out new experiences.
For example, integrate new modes of learning into your research processes, like informative YouTube videos or science podcasts. Shadow a fellow researcher for the day to see what they’re working on. Take a walk around the lab building. When you open yourself to the possibility of being inspired at any moment, the motivation is quicker to return.
According to Ana Rakonjac, a physics postdoc, sometimes all it takes to regain motivation is to have a new experience or change up the way you work. After 5+ years in the same role, Ana found that while her workload had increased tremendously during that time her job title and salary had stayed the same. Ultimately, that stress manifested itself as physical pain. “I learnt a lot, but it was quite stressful because the responsibilities and the work hours kept piling up,” says Ana. “I got massive migraine headaches that ramped up around that time.” She also felt impostor syndrome, which exacerbated the negative feelings at work. By changing to a role with a better schedule and more focused tasks, she was able to improve her mental health and motivation in the lab.
Before reaching such extreme levels of burnout, check in with your lab staff frequently and be honest about how you feel about work, too. A culture of transparency starts at the top.
Sometimes the best way to overcome burnout is to take a break from your research. Whether it’s for the afternoon, the weekend, or a week long excursion, taking occasional breaks allows your body to de-stress and recharge.
Worst case scenario, taking a break allows you to relax your mind and regain clarity. Best case scenario, taking a break reduces the direct attention you’ve been spending on your research, freeing your mind to develop fresh perspectives on your work that propel it forward after your break.
Encourage the entire lab to take breaks with scheduled non-research-related social activities, coffee breaks, and meals. Taking a full lunch break away from the computer regularly can help your entire team maintain energy and recharge.
Research has shown that walking improves creativity, so why not go for a walk for your next meeting? When you think creatively about lab operations and workflows, and keep an open mind, your lab team members might surprise you with their ideas and suggestions.
Staying motivated while conducting research is easier with the right mentality and support system. To further optimize your research and keep spirits high in the lab, see where you can cut out these 10 Manual Tasks That Slow Down Research Output.