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Out of Office: Can leaving our desks boost our research and wellbeing?

Academia, Olivia Kirtley

Out of Office: Can leaving our desks boost our research and wellbeing?

Photo by Aleksi Tappura ©. Unsplash. Used with permission.

By Olivia Kirtley:

At the risk of sounding as though I am already penning my memoirs less than a month after my viva, most of the moments of academic serendipity in my career so far have not been during supervision meetings or whilst writing papers, but instead over coffee, drinks, dinners, and more recently, also on Twitter. I would even go as far as to say that the most magical moments of academia-the knitting together pieces of complex puzzles, of meeting people whose ideas set one bubbling with excitement- don’t actually happen in the office.

Several years ago I read an article about the former chairman of the MRC’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), Max Perutz, and his vision of the LMB Canteen as a place where the scientists from the lab could get together to exchange ideas. He was convinced of the vital importance of having a shared social space for employees to interact, not just for its value in fostering scientific progress and collaboration, but also for its key role in providing a supportive community for people’s wellbeing.  His wife, Gisela, was the heart and soul of the canteen, keeping a watchful eye over the flock of LMB staff to make sure everyone was doing okay.

We work in a profession where poor mental health is rife; the constant whirlwind of grant applications, writing papers, the small matter of conceiving of and carrying out world-leading research, and the myriad other tasks which must be accomplished,  grind down many academics to a point of utter desperation and burnout. In order to keep up with such demands, many people hastily chow down lunch whilst still at their desk, feeling unable to justify taking an hour to go and hobnob with other researchers who are also dancing on the spot with anxiety about the stack of work almost audibly falling into their inbox in their absence.  Perhaps though, this is in fact even more of a reason to prise ourselves away from our desks and see other people?  If there is a regular lunch or coffee gathering and somebody suddenly stops coming, maybe it is a sign that they might need a bit of extra support.

Twitter may well have become the virtual common room of the modern academic. I can chat to researchers from all over the world, exchange research ideas, ask for advice and enjoy some jokes, all without having to leave my desk. The supportive academic community that I have found on Twitter has really led me to the conclusion that Twitter is essential for academia. It is a bit like having the full spectrum of academic experiences on speed-dial, with such a wealth of knowledge and importantly, kindness and collegiality just a few keystrokes away.

As a regular ‘desk-luncher’ myself, I ponder what we can do to promote the idea of taking a social break as a valuable part of academic life? And indeed, how this can be facilitated when researchers already have so many demands upon their time? Leaving my desk to have lunch with others from the department, to have dinners and drinks with our lab group and visitors has provided me with many great academic opportunities in the form of collaborations and visits to other labs at home and abroad. Crucially though, it has also given me a variety of people with a diverse array of experience to whom I feel I can, and have, reached out to when in need of advice and support.

Does your lab or department have a culture of taking social breaks? Do you think it is important to take time away from the desk to socialise with colleagues? We would love to hear about your experiences!

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