By: AnnaStacia Penrod, BS, MBA, HTL (ASCP)
Many stressors plague us in the laboratory, with some leading to burnout, but there is hope in reducing or eliminating stress by understanding the cause and developing appropriate interventions. Our bodies adapt to stress in three stages: alarm (flight or fight response), resistance (handling only one stress at a time), and exhaustion (burnout). Stressors are physical or psychological demands placed upon an individual that result in a negative strain. Common physical stressors include environmental temperature or humidity, noise levels, uncontrollable noises, lighting levels, job pace, workload, hours worked, or even the work shift. Think of all the timers and alarms going off in the laboratory; they represent unconscious, physical stressors through uncontrollable noise.
Chronic stress causes burnout. Burnout results when you deplete your coping means because of the prolonged response to psychological strain from persistent work stressors. Burnout is seen as emotional exhaustion (the feeling of being drained by work), depersonalization (becoming hardened), and low personal accomplishment (feeling powerless). Early warning signs of burnout are cynicism and high exhaustion. What does burnout look like? Burnout looks like pessimism, detachment, hopelessness, irritability, loss of appetite, depression, and/or increased illness. When you cannot find the motivation to go to work, you are experiencing burnout. The perception of inequality or disparity in the lab will always lead to burnout. However, work environments that do not experience inequality can reverse the signs and symptoms of burnout when addressed early.
Negative work environments, demands, and situations place employees at risk for developing burnout when not addressed. Reducing and eliminating burnout should focus on both you and your role through stress management programs, skills training, and job design. Ameliorating psychological stressors at work is possible by instituting flexible schedules, flextime, autonomy, participating in decision making, promoting humor, providing social support, depersonalizing negative actions, ensuring job security, providing functioning equipment, creating routines, and taking breaks. Employees should have a social support group both inside and outside of work to help cope with work stressors. Allow employees to interact with each and encourage meaningful breaks by playing games, walking, reading a book, or even meditating. Play a round of trivia a couple times a day as a team. A lab assistant of mine started playing trivia with the team twice a day, awarding the winner a golden banana statue. Although it seemed like the group was having ‘too much fun,’ this engagement increased productivity and reduced burnout by increasing moral (Thank you Jane).
Flexible schedules promote the sense of control and provide work-life balance; starting and ending times may diverge within minutes of shift times once a flexible schedule is instituted . I’ve found employees are more likely to arrive less flustered and begin work sooner when start times are flexible, thus increasing productivity, as well as reducing stress.
Giving employees ownership of their processes through autonomy reduces stress; if the result is the expected quality, it shouldn’t matter how the work was done (within reason). Encourage employee participation in the decision-making process, especially when purchasing new instrumentation that they will use. Make sure instrumentation is functioning correctly by participating in preventative maintenance activities, as well as making timely repairs. Hindrance-related stressors (such as inoperable instruments, inequality, or stalled career progression) limit employee achievement.
Daily quality checks are a major stressor within the laboratory. If QC becomes a punitive activity, then employees will reach burnout sooner. Quality checks should be about improving the process and individual skills by sharing depersonalized, negative experiences. Share the error but do not blame or draw attention to an individual. With that said, repetitive errors without improvement is a closed-door discussion with an employee about expectations and development. Remember, you have the power to reduce burnout just by asking and speaking up, even if you are not in an assigned leadership role.
 B. B. Baltes, T. E. Briggs, J. W. Huff, J. A. Wright and G. A. Neuman, "Flexible and compressed workweek schedules: A meta-analysis of their effects on work-related criteria," Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 84, no. 4, pp. 496-513, 1999.