Identifying and reducing day-to-day stress in laboratories
A busy laboratory can be a stressful working environment, especially if there is a backlog of samples or the team is working on a tight timescale. Nadine Bellamy-Thomas considers the small changes laboratories can make to mitigate the risks related to employee stress
Are there tasks currently being carried out by busy staff members which could actually be handled more efficiently by a machine?
Nadine Bellamy-Thomas, national account manager for decontamination and medical, Miele
Typical sources of stress might include a lack of communication, a heavy workload, pressure to produce accurate results and fears over errors and cross-contamination. Making just small changes to the way your laboratory is run can go a long way to creating a less stressful working environment.
The first place to start is to identify potential areas which could have a negative impact on staff wellbeing so you can draw up a risk mitigation strategy that is relevant to your team. Common things which have a detrimental effect on morale include making unrealistic demands, not showing appreciation, treating members of the team unfairly, failing to be clear and transparent about what is happening within the organisation and not giving employees their own areas of responsibility where they can make decisions.
Improving communication and adopting a more appreciative and supportive management style within the lab can significantly reduce these sources of stress.
Ask yourself some important questions about the way things work on a daily basis. Is the team kept informed of any changes and given details about what they are working towards? Does everybody understand the role they have to play within the their team, and which tasks are their responsibility to complete? Is enough being done to celebrate achievements within the team and recognise people’s efforts and hard work?
Having clearly defined roles within the laboratory, ensuring there is an easy route for colleagues to ask questions about and discuss their work can help minimise confusion and reduce the risk of human error. It is also vital that everyone working in the lab knows they are welcome to raise any issues of concern or flag anything they are worried or unsure about. Make sure there is a system of support in place for the whole team and promote a healthy workplace culture where regular rest breaks are encouraged.
Working long hours without taking time out of the laboratory can be damaging to team morale as well as increasing the likelihood of staff sickness, mistakes, and poor performance. Tired or demoralised team members are more likely to make errors which can have serious consequences for the whole research project.
Initiatives which encourage physical exercise can be very beneficial for employee wellbeing. For larger organisations, this could include having a gym on-site for staff to use. Others may offer employee benefits such as free or discounted gym membership or incentives for staff who walk or cycle to work. Making sure there are comfortable areas where employees can relax and unwind away from the lab is also important.
Prioritising employee mental health is vital and one way to do this is to ensure everyone receives the training and resources they need to do their job without feeling overwhelmed or under-resourced. Checking that everyone feels safe within the workplace, both in a physical and psychological sense, is also important. Stress awareness workshops may help the whole team get better at spotting when their colleagues are struggling and equip everyone with techniques they can use to feel calmer and happier on a day to day basis.
Are there tasks currently being carried out by busy staff members which could actually be handled more efficiently by a machine? Investing in cutting edge technology that can carry out some of the more mundane tasks can free up members of the team to concentrate on more important jobs which need to be completed.
One area where technology can easily reduce the workload in a laboratory is the cleaning and reprocessing of equipment. Thorough handwashing can be a time-consuming task and is probably not the best use of a skilled professional within the lab. Using a laboratory-standard washer-disinfector or glasswasher to process glassware and equipment is not only quicker and more efficient than handwashing but it reduces the risk of things going wrong in the laboratory.
While some laboratories may prefer the traditional method of washing glassware by hand, this does come with a number of risk factors, all of which can make the lab a more stressful place to work. Washing glassware by hand comes with the risk of accidental breakage which can cause injury to staff. There is also a higher risk of cross-contamination – even if items appear clean to the human eye, there may still be residual contaminants present. Microscopic traces of foreign materials or chemicals can cause errors in results, which could jeopardise your team's project, costing everyone time and money.
Implementing a user-friendly system for managing processes on a day-to-day basis can also reduce the stress your team is placed under. An effective system will keep track of all ongoing and completed tasks and processes, document the use of all incoming supplies, materials and components and schedule maintenance, calibration, and verification of any instruments.
A noisy environment where there is a lot going on can contribute to people feeling overwhelmed. Creating a quiet, distraction-free laboratory will help everyone to focus on the tasks they have been given and feel happier within the workplace.
Author: Nadine Bellamy-Thomas is national account manager for decontamination and medical at Miele, miele.co.uk