I was going to post every week on a Sunday morning, but I could not sleep this morning (I am slowly reducing my antidepression medication which means I have a lot more energy in the mornings, perhaps too much energy) and so I have written a post based on a meeting I had yesterday.
I started a new job this week. On my first day at my new job, one of the human resources (HR) personnel asked to talk to me about the volunteer work that I had reported on one of the induction forms. I really value volunteer work and do quite a bit of it. I had listed several organisations and they wanted to know how many hours a day/week I spent volunteering. I told them about biweekly meetings after work for one organisation, a five hour shift on the weekend for another, quarterly meetings after work for another and all day activities for science outreach every now and again. The HR representative then proceeded to explain to me that there are Working Time Regulations (that implemented the European Working Time Directive into Great Britain law in 1998). I had to look up more information about them because I had never heard of these laws. You can read about them here: http://www.hse.gov.uk/contact/faqs/workingtimedirective.htm
Basically, they boil down to a few details that the HR representative kindly explained in an email after our conversation: 0. A worker’s working time, including overtime, shall not exceed an average of 48 hours for each seven days. 1. Workers must have 11 consecutive hours rest in any 24 hour period 2. Workers must be given a 20 minute rest if work is longer than 6 hours 3. Workers are entitled to 24 hours off in each seven day period.
Why did no one ever mention these regulations to me before? A research associate job in academia is still a job and it is regulated by the above laws (for that matter so is any teaching job!)
I wonder if I was told upon starting my first job as an academic researcher that British workplace regulations stated that I should take a break every 6 hours whether I would have had a complete mental breakdown. I know I would have still had suicidal thoughts, but perhaps the stress would not have built to such a crisis.
Academia is highly competitive and so it encourages long working hours and weeks. These are obviously not recorded in timesheets or your job description. However, I have always been obsessed with keeping records, so I have a calendar detailing what I did every day since I started the records in 2006, so it is quite easy for me to check what I was doing say on 28 March 2014.
As I said, long hours are just a fact of competitive research life. This is especially true when you are growing cells in a lab. You often need to feed the cells on the weekend or have time points for experiments at unsociable hours. Another problem for a lot of researchers is booking time on expensive shared equipment. As the demand for some of the microscopes or instruments is so high, you are permitted to work at hours late in the evening and on weekends. It makes complete sense from a financial and time management perspective, but perhaps fails to take into account the human requirements and working time regulations.
As an example, there was one instrument that was key to my PhD research and it was bookable (and payable) in slots of half or full days. A full day was measured as a 24 hour period. In order to ensure that I used my precious time and funds for the experiments, I stayed in the lab/office for the entire 24 hour period, changing samples after each experimental run. Towards the end of my PhD, this became more and more necessary as my time to finish started to run out. At one point, late in the evening, a friend (another PhD student in the same department) visited me in the lab and found me crying over my samples. I told her that I would never finish all the experiments in time. I was stressed and tired. She convinced me to stop working.
I have so many examples like this one. I suspect other researchers do as well. It would be interesting to hear from other researchers about their experiences.
Another example was during the final years of my research associate position. At that point, I had finally convinced my department through many meetings and forms to allow me to do a new research project. One of the safety rules was that I could never leave my samples unattended. The only problem was that I had to start setting up for my experiments early in the morning and processing my samples late into the evening. In terms of actual lab bookings, I told the safety committee (quoted directly from an email in 2014!) that “I need to book 15 minutes for the transfer at the start of the protocol (9-9:15, 12-12:15, 3-3:15) and 5 minutes at the end (10:30-10:45, 1:30-:145, 4:30-4:45). This is my daily actuation protocol.” In between each transfer, I was running the experiments. There was no time to take a break. I could certainly could not have lunch (you cannot eat in a lab). I spent over a year running these experiments. The experiments ended when I was admitted to a mental hospital.
Thinking back, I just wish someone who read through my protocols (which were extraordinarily detailed to meet the health and safety regulations surrounding the use of my samples) before I started the experiments could have told me that I need to add break times (and meal times) to my protocol. It would have been a simple way to reduce my stress levels. Instead, the protocol was a recipe for a mental breakdown.
After about a year of working on these experiments, in January 2015, I started going to weekly counselling sessions with the University counselling service. I went to the counselling service for three months. I told them that I could not stop thinking about suicide, that I was so stressed that I could not sleep or eat, that I felt isolated from my colleagues and the only one I felt liked me at work was my supervisor, that I thought my colleagues were spying on me and finally that I thought there were secret cameras in the lab. I told the counsellor that all I wanted was for the negative thoughts to leave me alone so I could focus on my research and apply for fellowships and new research positions (my contract was due to expire at the end of the year). The counsellor recommended mindfulness, so I took a course offered by the University.
My stress levels continued to build as my applications for jobs and fellowships proved unsuccessful. My visa was linked to my job. I had to get a new job that would sponsor my work visa again. I felt trapped in academia as it is much easier for academics to prove that you are the only one who can do the job. The feeling that I was surrounded by enemies and spies in the lab continued to build. I felt that I could not trust any of my colleagues. They all hated me. Mindfulness did not help; it was just another task to complete in my busy schedule.
A few months later, I was admitted to the mental health hospital with symptoms of paranoia, anxiety and depression.