Innovative medical research is fueled by creative and tenacious minds. Yet many of the researchers who do this vital work find themselves frazzled by a long-hours culture that not only hinders their creative ability but may also discourage the Nobel laureates of the future from joining their ranks.
We need better balance between our work and our lives.
For many academic researchers, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. There is always the next grant to write, the lecture to prepare for, the departmental paperwork that’s been lingering too long in the in tray. This is even truer of those ambitious souls who are creative enough or brave enough, depending on your perspective, to simultaneously pursue an academic and a clinical career.
I know in my own life — managing my roles as an academic, clinician, senior manager, and president of the United Kingdom Academy of Medical Sciences — work can too easily bleed into other aspects of my life. As I attend the third evening event of the week, after many days of back-to-back meetings, I find the qualities that I need to do my work, such as resilience, creativity, judgement and vision, in short supply.
I’ve schooled myself to replenish them by taking time away from work before I hit the point of overload. It can be spending time with my five grown children, video chatting with my first grandchild, or going to the theater and art galleries with my wife. Or I make time to draw — observing something so closely that I can capture it on paper takes me away from day-to-day worries.
Not long ago, I realized that I rarely talk about these restorative activities when I am at work. The culture of science has historically valued those who burn the midnight oil and work weekends and holidays to the detriment of outside interests or commitments. Some within the profession may be tempted to conceal their family life, their caring responsibilities, or their outside-of-work interests lest they detract from their reputations as scientists.
It was that sentiment the Academy of Medical Sciences wanted to address in its new campaign, #MedSciLife. We wanted to highlight the diversity of working styles in medical science and celebrate the life behind the lab coat or stethoscope. To do this, we collected photographs of leading medical researchers in their home and work environments, and asked them to talk honestly about how they have tried to blend these two aspects of their lives.
The personal stories that came back show that medical scientists are a resourceful group of people. Many of them have found effective ways to balance their work life with outside interests and caring responsibilities. The profiles show that it is possible to have a fulfilling life outside of the laboratory, even in the face of the worst life can throw at us, from mental or physical illness, career setbacks, unforeseen life events, breakdown of relationships, or changes in circumstances.
The response from the medical research community has been fantastic. The website for the campaign, www.medscilife.org, has become a hub for good advice on blending personal and work lives. We also brought the campaign home, replacing in our headquarters the traditional oil paintings of the academy’s past presidents with photos of researchers dancing, boxing, sailing, cooking, gardening, and more. Junior researchers, under pressure to make their way in the field, have endorsed our efforts.
The goal of the #MedSciLife campaign is to help medical scientists at all stages of their careers see their lives more holistically and learn to value their time outside of work as something that can nurture and even grow the essential skills and personal resources needed to succeed in their careers. We also hope that by raising awareness of different ways of working, managers will realize that presenteeism is a thing of the past, that long hours do not pay in the long run, and that flexible work schedules can be beneficial to bring the best people and talents into the profession.
Equally important, we want those who hadn’t thought of medical science as the profession for them to see that it is inclusive, fulfilling, and welcomes all great minds. Creating a bigger and more diverse pool of excellence will put us in the best possible position to answer the biggest health challenges facing the world.
Robert Lechler, MD, is president of the Academy of Medical Sciences in the United Kingdom, vice principal (health) at King’s College London, and executive director of King’s Health Partners.