It’s 6 a.m. and you had a rough night of coughing, a runny nose and a massive headache. Despite the eight hours of sleep you attempted, your body feels more unrested than when you first went to bed the night before. Your body is telling you to stay home and rest. You consider it for a moment, but when you recall your lab to-do list, you say to yourself, “suck it up,” as your feet plop down on the cold floor.
When flu, colds and other illnesses strike, you’re called to decide between your health or your experiment. Too often, the experiment is the winner. Except, your experiment, your lab and your colleagues might not actually be winning. In this article, we highlight the risks caused by being sick in the laboratory along with ways to feel a little less stressed about taking a sick day or two.
- Why it’s important for researchers to take sick days
- How to manage a sick day as a researcher
- Special cases
- Proactive approaches
Why it’s important for researchers to take sick days
You might feel selfish or guilty about taking a sick day while others work hard in the lab. The ideas of selflessness, endurance and toughing it out is not isolated to the laboratory. It’s widespread in many workplaces, but there are several consequences, especially within research.
Communicable illnesses spread quickly in closed, shared spaces. Immediate examples of extreme situations include the number of school closures reported in 2018 and 2019 due to the rate of flu related illnesses, and gastrointestinal outbreaks reported on U.S. Navy Ships and cruise ships.
Likewise, a laboratory setting is the perfect place for contagious illnesses to spread. Even if you bounce right back after a cold or flu, your colleagues might not. Nor will they be happy to take the flu home with them to family and friends.
If the reason you’re thinking about going into the lab while sick is because of the endless tasks your experiment can’t wait on, think again. When you’re sick at work, you quickly realize how much your mind is not operating at 100%. Trying to carry out experiments with clouded judgment might actually come with great costs. Imagine setting up a massive PCR experiment, only to realize after running it that you forgot to include Taq. Now, you’ve got to rerun the whole thing again. What’s worse, you don’t feel good.
Foggy brain aside, there is another possible consequence to your experiment (or even your colleagues’ experiments): contamination.
Let’s look at Mycoplasma contamination since it is a great pain to cell culture. This tiny bacterium is hard to detect, they impact cell growth and can render research invalid. When it comes to Mycoplasma, contamination in cell culture, a major source of contamination is from laboratory staff. A 1976 study showed 80.6% of lab technicians sampled were carriers of Mycoplasma (M.salivarium). One of the methods of transmission is sneezing. While flu and colds are viral illnesses not caused by Mycoplasma, you might heighten your risk of causing Mycoplasma contamination or any other detrimental contamination due to the fact that you’re now sneezing and coughing in higher frequencies.
But I don’t feel sick. I don’t even have a fever:
While on the topic of Mycoplasma and contamination, there are situations where you have all the symptoms of being sick, but you still feel pretty good. You’re not fatigued. Your head feels good. You don’t have a fever. You’re just coughing a lot, and you sound hoarse.
Walking pneumonia, caused by M. pneumonia, can cause you to be somewhat symptomatic of a cold but feeling well enough to work. However, keep in mind, you’re still coughing, sneezing at a higher frequency, and therefore potentially contaminating your experiment.
How to manage a sick day as a researcher
When you’ve got time constraints and a long experimental pipeline, even imagining a sick day can raise stress levels. So what do you do when you have cells to keep alive and crucial experiments planned?
1. Breathe, and understand that science is meant to be slow and careful.
To properly figure out how to manage a sick day when it comes up, the first thing that needs to happen is to relax for just a moment. Understand that the pure process of science is methodical and long-term. You might be in a hurry, but the reality is that many things can wait a day or two or few in order to mend.
2. Ignore what others might think:
A devoted work ethic is admirable and important to the productivity of science. What isn’t admirable is when the culture of the lab places that devotion above overall health. There is a pride that comes with sticking it out, but there is also a cost, especially in a research lab. Remember, contamination from sickness and spreading infection to others is a greater consequence than missing a day in the lab.
3. Decide on what is truly urgent:
Once you’re a little more relaxed, it’s time to review your to-do list for the day or week. From that list, determine what is actually urgent. What will die if you’re not there? For example, running the gels you planned to run can be put off. Ensuring your cells are pulled from an incubator when they need to be, can’t really wait.
Go through each task, and use the following questions to decide what can be put off, and what absolutely cannot wait (write up your own set of questions that might be more unique to your situation if necessary):
- Will putting this task off cause me to lose a significant amount of time?
- Will putting this task off mess up the results of my overall experiment?
- Will putting this task off cause a significant loss of supply/money?
- Will putting this task off completely derail or kill my experiment?
- Can this aspect of my experiment be redone if need be?
- How detrimental would it be to have to redo my experiment?
Sort your task list between urgent and not urgent based on these questions. This lets you clearly see what you need to prioritize and what you can put off.
You’re not alone in the lab, not usually (see below). For those things on your list that absolutely cannot wait and are hopefully easy to execute, ask a colleague, and be willing to return the favor if and when that day comes. Your lab manager can also be an excellent resource in this situation. Call or text with your list and ask if they can delegate out the must-do tasks.
5. If you must, get In and get out!
Maybe you are the only one in the lab, or you are the only one who knows how to carry out the tasks that must get done. Maybe everyone else is sick. Or maybe you just cannot ask. In that case, go in and get the stuff done on your list that absolutely cannot wait. Plan to stay no more than one or two hours, and do not push yourself to go further. Once you have finished your urgent to-do list, leave the lab.
The advice in this article is not going to offer a one size fits all solution. Instead, these are general, practical tips. Your experiments, lab culture, schedule and unique situations are going to impact how you manage sick days. And in some cases, your situation might be more specialized or challenging to work around. In this section, we’ll highlight certain special-case scenarios, and how to best navigate them.
Meetings and presentations
One of the huge dilemmas with being sick is that there is just never a good time. Occasionally, it can happen to coincide with a scheduled presentation or important lab meeting that can’t be rescheduled.
How you approach this will depend on a few considerations. Two primary things to think about are:
- How does your lab handle this? Some labs are on strict schedules. Missing a meeting means missing a significant window. Or, it might put things off schedule for your PI. In this case, there’s not a lot you can do except to go ahead with your presentation and do the best you can. But the key is to do your presentation or attend the meeting, and then immediately go home after to rest.
- How sick are you? It’s really, really hard to reschedule important meetings, or presentations when you’re expected to speak. The decision to cancel or reschedule will have to depend on how sick you are. Obviously if you’re in the hospital, there’s no way around it. But what if it’s just a stomach bug or cough? Only you can decide what is best for you. Consider yourself, consider others and consider the constraints. One key thing is to think very realistically about the situation. For example, if you cannot hold your stomach, giving a presentation is going to be extremely difficult to manage. It’s better not to push yourself in a situation like that.
Managing the expectations of professors and PIs
You might find it difficult to take that sick day if your professor or PI is not as flexible. Or perhaps they are flexible, but it feels a little scary to ask. This is never an easy situation to face. Not only do you feel dreadful, you feel guilty or ashamed for even thinking about asking. Here are some approaches to help you decide what to do.
- Consult your institution’s sick policy: Most universities and research institutions have outlined policies for illness. This is the base requirement for what to do and how to proceed. However, too often those same policies might require you to make arrangements with your PI or professor.
- Check with your professor before you get sick: When you’re sick, you immediately feel pressure about what to do. But that pressure is lessened if you have this mapped out ahead of time. Before you ever get sick, find out from your professor or PI what their expectations are when a member is sick. Perhaps they require a doctor’s note after so many days of absence. Maybe they have a policy already drafted. Maybe it depends on what experiments you’re running or the day’s schedule (as in there might be very mandatory things that shouldn’t be missed except in emergencies).
- Ask your lab manager to advocate for you: If you’re in a lab with very high expectations or strict policies, you might want to approach your lab manager first. If your lab manager has a longstanding relationship with the lab’s PI, they might be a great ally for you.
- Ask Anyway: If you’re feeling pretty terrible, it’s best to just ask anyway. If you know there are things that are urgent, explain that you can come in to take care of those items on the list and then you intend to go home to rest.
When your child is sick
When your child is sick, the entire story changes. You want to drop everything because your little one is depending on your care.
Some labs are going to be extremely supportive, but others might have stricter deadlines and timelines. For the latter, this is a difficult situation and can cause a larger barrier for those wanting to advance their career in research. Unfortunately, there is not a single solution to address these challenges.
Instead, consider the options above (Managing the expectations of professors and PIs section)
- Consult your institution’s policies – many of them have policies regarding the illness of immediate family members.
- Talk to your professor or PI before the situation arises.
- Seek the assistance of your lab manager
Additional tips for these situations include:
- Identify people you can rely on for assistance, collaboration and help. They can be your go-to when emergencies arise.
- Sync experimental schedules with other labmates in anticipation.
- Communicate a strategy ahead of time with the other researchers in your lab so you can support each other in the future.
Your situation might call for other considerations. Knowing yourself, how bad you feel, and what the expectations are will help you determine your best course of action.
Getting sick is a reality of life. Instead of figuring out what to do once you are sick, it’s better to plan ahead and be prepared. Here are some strategies to be a little more proactive in the lab for the next cold and flu season.
Have a rule about sickness already in place
It’s better to be ready. Have it written in a handbook or have a seasonal email go out to everyone in the lab reminding them why it’s important and that it is required to stay home (or out of the lab) when sick. Even remind the lab about flu shots, and preventative measures to keep the lab safe overall.
Get the lab manager involved
If you’re serious about being prepared for the next wave of illnesses, get with your lab manager to help prepare. Ask them to volunteer as a resource or a coordinator for when someone is sick. The lab manager can be a great point of contact when delegation is required.
Encourage sick days in your lab
This is really one of the most important things. Being a lab that encourages and supports sick days can help motivate a person to use it when they really need to. Have that become part of your lab’s culture so that when someone calls undecided about whether or not to come in, the default answer will be to stay home, feel better and only come back when they’re well enough.
Remind your labmates that you will support them when they’re sick
At the first sign of someone being sick in the lab, remind labmates that you’re available to help if they can’t make it in. As the day progresses and their condition worsens, get ahead of the game by asking what their plans for the next few days are and how you can help.
Remember, taking a day or two off from the lab during sickness doesn’t just help you get better, it helps your colleagues and reduces the risk of your experiments.
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