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Stressed Out

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It is no secret that the long road to a tenure-track position is beset with plenty of challenges, not least of which is the pressure of the lab workload and maintaining the delicate balance between having a career and having a life. The phenomenon of the "leaky pipeline" in which graduate students and postdocs, usually women, hop off the career conveyor belt is often the result of having reached their wits' end.

"Getting a PhD and a tenure-track position has always been stressful. There is so much more competition when it comes to looking at faculty positions as the funding environment has changed drastically, especially in the last few years, and the number of tenure track positions is decreasing," says Christine Des Jarlais, assistant dean for postdoctoral affairs and graduate outreach at the University of California, San Francisco. "In science, there seems to be less flexibility and understanding of the need to balance work and life. The science has to get done, it has to be the best, and the attitude is a 'You go figure out your own life' type of situation."

Identifying and helping stressed-out postdocs before they have a nervous breakdown or decide to throw in the towel may be a first line of defense against the "leaky pipeline" leaking out talent. The signs that a colleague is under severe stress may not always be as obvious as someone swearing up a storm or pulling his hair out.

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What to look for

In order to educate PIs and postdocs on these issues, the UCSF campus health center and postdoctoral affairs office published the Postdoc Guide: Caring for Yourself and Your Colleagues, which discusses indicators of stress and how to mitigate them. "There was concern on this campus that stress is not really considered very often, and there had been a survey of students as well as the records from the student health center and there was enough of a concern because of the data that we decide to take action," Des Jarlais says. "At many institutions, postdocs are kind of left out of place: They are not students, they are not really staff, and they're not faculty. Being a postdoc is an extremely stressful time period and that's why we wanted to put together this guide."

The guide outlines key stress indicators, beginning with the most obvious factors, such as an individual's emotional state oscillating between an elevated or depressed mood, irritability, and excessive worrying. Declining work performance, trouble finishing tasks, poor attendance, and cognition problems — which can range from a difficulty comprehending the work to forgetfulness — are also warning signs.

There are also, of course, behavioral issues that can show up, including increased defensiveness in discussions, inappropriate or otherwise odd behaviors, and withdrawal from social interaction. Sometimes the most easily observable signs are physical indications that someone may be suffering from extreme stress — significant weight loss, obvious fatigue, deteriorating personal appearance, or an increase in alcohol or drug use, for example.

According to the UCSF guide, most stressors are the result of the competitive academic workload, 
financial concerns, cultural diversity, working relationships, or some combination of these and other related factors. Despite the current state of tenure-track prospects, postdocs can try to control their stress levels by eating healthy foods, getting regular exercise, limiting caffeine intake, using relaxation techniques, and by opening up to their friends, family, and peers, the guide says.

When to step in

Des Jarlais says the hardest part about dealing with a stressed-out colleague in the lab is knowing whether it is appropriate to intervene. The guide provides tips on how to approach a colleague in a one-to-one, private conversation in order to maintain confidentiality, while at the same time maintaining some distance by not asking too many questions.

The National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, a group comprised of US-based behavioral health organizations, has a "Mental Health First Aid" program that outlines how to recognize and de-escalate crises in the workplace. "You should always keep your own safety in mind. If a person is extremely upset or violent, certainly call security, but that's going to be rare," says Bryan Gibb, director of public education at the council. "There are a number of ways to interact with someone who is behaving unpredictably, and a lot of that has to do with approaching the person in a caring or non-judgmental way."

The program outlines five steps to approaching an at-risk lab member, which can be remembered by the acronym "ALGEE." The mnemonic stands for assessing risk of suicide or harm, listening non-judgmentally, giving reassurance and information, encouraging appropriate professional help, and encouraging self-help and other support strategies.

When it comes to concerns supervisors may have about being accused of invading privacy or breaching rights when approaching an at-risk individual, Gibb says the way to assuage those worries is to avoid personal questions and, instead, point out the obvious. "What I tell folks is that mental health first aid should not supplement your professional roles and responsibilities as a supervisor, which prohibit you from asking specific questions about a person's medical history," he says. "But as a supervisor, you are allowed to point out observable signs and behaviors just like you would about someone's job performance."

Asking someone if they would like to discuss issues they are having is the recommended way to start a dialogue about a potential problem. "There's a stigma around this stuff that -prevents people from getting help ... and sometimes people who experience mental illness have no awareness of their symptoms," Gibb says. "But as a coworker, it's not about prying into their personal life, it's really just about not ignoring the obvious things you're going to see in the classroom or lab."

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