ACT LifeSciCoP workshop for HR – Return to Work or the “new reality”.

The final online workshop in the LifeSciCoP supported by ACT was targeted to Human Resource personal and Gender equality officer.
When discussing in the CoP the different possible topics, the goup agreed that a common topic is the new Human Resource paradigm for “the new normality”. In the press it was intensively discussed that the pandemic has increased the inequalities between genders, renforcing traditional divisions of roles. The concequence of this was that women took on more careing and household responsibilities which reduced their productivity in their job. Editors reported that the submission of scientific publications dropped during the pandemic for women, but not in the case of men.
The CoP members shared the concern, that the process of getting people back into the office might be a similar sensitive topic and that it should be managed with care, to not allow to increase of the gap between genders even more.
We invite Desiree Dickerson to reflect with us together our experiences during the pandemic, our expectations for the future, and the factors to consider including diversity and inclusions perspectives. Desiree is a is a clinical psychologist who specialises in the mental health and well-being of the research community. As a former postdoc in the neurosciences, Desiree works globally with universities, staff management teams, lab groups, and academics in the pursuit of a healthier, sustainable approach to our research environments. She has also contributed to the dialogue around mental health and well-being in academia through pieces on imposter syndrome, grad school mental health and a recent one on Mental health strategies during COVID.

From each CoP member we invite one additional participant from HR (or the department relevant for the topic in the specific institution).

The mayor question around remote work challenges as HR and what are the needs and wants of our people was discussed intensively in smaller berak-out sessions. Many different aspects were considered during the discussions:

• Are we going back or are we going forward? What did we like about our working lives before the pandemic and what wasn’t working for us?
• How could we approach this change – what are the options?
• What are the most relevant factors to consider and how do we prioritise them in the changes we make?
• What do we need to consider from a well-being & mental health perspective?
• What do we need to consider from a diversity and inclusion perspective?
• What tools can we harness today to help us make the change in whatever form it takes?
• What signals / triggers should we look out for in ourselves and in our people?
• How will we know if it is working?

A full report of the workshop and developed ideas and concerns can be found the annex. Here an extract about the two main key themes that were highlighted and discussed intensively: Mental Health & Well-being and Training.

Mental Health & Well-being
On top of already widely discussed issues of burnout, work/life balance, isolation, and digital fatigue, another key thing to remember is uncertainty can have a number of negative effects on our mental health and wellbeing. It can amplify any anxiety and worry that is already present, stop us from moving forward or taking action, or lock us into a chronic stress pattern making us even more prone to fear and anxiety.

Questions to consider
• How might we give a sense of control and/or choice to our people during this time?
• What are the things that we can provide structure to or ensure remain consistent in the work day or life?
• Do we as an institution truly make mental health and wellbeing a priority? How are we demonstrating this?
• What can we, as an institution, put into place to make sure traditionally marginalised groups are getting the care, support, and understanding they need (from colleagues, supervisors, and the institution)?
• Are our people, particularly those in less senior roles, comfortable asking for help or telling someone they’re struggling?
• How do we ensure we’re providing the right tools and resources for the right problems?

Example solutions from other companies
• COVID Mental Health Days, or one day off per month, for every month that lacks a holiday.
• Implement “digital sunsets,” an agreed time every day where the team shuts off their devices and stops working. Devices don’t get switched on again until the agreed time the next day.
• Institute a policy of having a time limit for meetings or, for example, setting a maximum of 2 hour-long meetings per week.
• Include scheduled breaks for meetings an hour or longer. These can be just 5 mins for people to stretch their legs or have a short mental break.
• Build in time buffers, for example – meetings always start 5 mins after the hour, or finish 10 mins before the hour to allow for individuals to meet their own needs or calmly prepare for their next task.

What do we mean by “training”? As we head into uncharted territory and a new way of working, with potentially new priorities and considerations, there will be several learning curves to overcome as an institution and as employees. Training may help to provide a faster, smoother transition.

Question to consider
What issues are we considering training for? Are they symptoms of a larger or different issue? i.e. A heavy workload may be the result of a number of things which may or may not be within the individual’s control: poor time management, poor distribution of work, inability or fear of raising issues with supervisor, or an inability to say ‘no’, etc.