NATURE PODCAST

Podcast: Out-of-office emails and work-life-balance, and an update on the novel coronavirus outbreak

Hear the latest from the world of science, brought to you by Benjamin Thompson and Nick Howe.

This week, how setting an out-of-office email could help promote a kinder academic culture.

In this episode:

00:47 Being truly out of office

Last year, a viral tweet about emails sparked a deeper conversation about academics’ work-life-balance. Could email etiquette help tip the balance? Careers Article: Out of office replies and what they can say about you

09:35 Research Highlights

Finding the ‘greenest’ oranges, and the benefits of ‘baby talk’. Research Article: Bell and Horvath; Research Highlight: Babies benefit when Mum and Dad are fluent in ‘baby talk’

12:06 News Chat

Updates on the novel coronavirus, assessing Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and the potential impacts of Brexit on UK research. News: Coronavirus: latest news on spreading infection; News: How quickly can Iran make a nuclear bomb?; News: Brexit is happening: what does it mean for science?

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Transcript

This week, how setting an out-of-office email could help promote a kinder academic culture.

Host: Nick Howe

Welcome back to the Nature Podcast. This week, the relationship between out-of-office emails and work-life balance…

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And further updates on the novel coronavirus outbreak. I’m Benjamin Thompson.

Host: Nick Howe

And I’m Nick Howe.

[Jingle]

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Like most people, a large part of my job is email, and for me, that involves emailing a lot of researchers. Maybe I’ve even emailed you, dear listener. And when you’re in the business of sending a lot of emails, it is par for the course to get a lot of one type of reply – out-of-office emails. Pretty regularly, I hear the infamous ping-back of the auto-reply bot. Now, as somewhat of a connoisseur of the auto-reply I’d say they fall into a couple of broad categories. There’s the standard…

I’m away at the moment, I’ll be back later. I’ll get back to you when I’m back. For urgent enquiries please contact fall.guy@stooge.com.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

To the humorous:

Off on a plane. It’s getting insane. I really must stay or my lab will pay the price of neglect as things go to heck.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

And then there are the brusque responses, like this one which has caused a bit of a stir recently on social media…

I do not respond to emails on weekends. If this is an emergency, please call my mobile. If you do not have my mobile number, then you do not have a weekend emergency.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

This is Stephana Cherak, an epidemiology PhD student from the University of Calgary. She tweeted this out-of-office reply nonchalantly one evening.

Interviewee: Stephana Cherak

I thought it was a bit comical, a bit quirky and funny.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

But was intended as a humorous tweet turned into somewhat of a storm in the tweet cup.

Interviewee: Stephana Cherak

My notification settings were not adequately prepared for how viral this tweet went.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

About 3 million Twitter accounts interacted with the tweet and a lot of the responses came from academics.

Interviewee: Stephana Cherak

People were commenting that, yeah, truly, our lives aren’t controlled by email, and people were sharing their own personal experiences, like for example, one tweet was, ‘When I started in a very, very, very part-time teaching position, I hadn’t realised I’d been given a department email address and didn’t know for two years. I eventually opened it and saw over 4,000 emails in the inbox, deleted them all and, as far as I know, everyone graduated.’ Some other themes that I noticed were people sharing how they honour their boundaries through their out-of-office replies, some saying this is a great concept but I definitely don’t do it, so do as I say, not as I do, sort of thing.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

It seemed that Stephana had struck a nerve, one which is all too familiar in academia – work-life balance.

Interviewee: Stephana Cherak

The responses actually got quite personal, and I could see these different experiences and different thoughts really starting to come out of the different tweets and how people were and are very clearly struggling with this idea of a work-life balance.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Personally, this didn’t come as a surprise. I left academia myself largely due to concerns about my work-life-balance, and I’m not alone. In Nature’s latest PhD survey, 40% of respondents said they were unsatisfied with their work-life-balance. In a culture of publish or perish, it seems life can often lose out to work. But what is it about Stephana’s tweet which caused such a viral response? Why out-of-office replies? And how is email etiquette linked with work-life balance? Emma Russell is a psychologist who studies how work emails affect people’s wellbeing and productivity. She explained to me that the way people view emails often depends on their work culture.

Interviewee: Emma Russell

Generally, academics find it really difficult to integrate email into not only their personal lives but into their working lives. There’s still an attitude amongst academics that email is separate to the rest of their work, that it’s something that they want to leave to deal with later and that they see it as kind of a menace to their normal day-to-day tasks and activities.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Now, this is notably different from other fields where people see email as a work-critical tool, and when viewed through this lens, dealing with email was easier and had less of an impact on people’s wellbeing. Perhaps if academics view email similarly, it would become less of a demon. But regardless of how we deal with email at work, Emma thinks everyone needs to switch off and disconnect occasionally. We need to be out of office sometimes. Emma pointed out that it isn’t as simple as just setting up an auto-reply from time to time though – you also have to stick to it.

Interviewee: Emma Russell

So, what we’re suggesting is that when you’re trying to manage expectations, which is effectively what an out-of-office does, is that you kind of adhere to the management of those expectations. So, if you’re saying I may be able to look at your email but my response might be slower than normal, then clearly, if there is a very important email coming in and you want to deal with it, that’s fine. But if you’re saying I’m absolutely not contactable at these times, and I won’t be looking at my email again until Monday morning, but then you do start dealing with your email and responding to people, what your colleagues learn is that they can’t trust what you’re saying and that means they then will find or feel that you are just as accessible as you’ve always been, and they’ll feel it’s their right to contact you and ask for your response at any time of the day and night.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

So, how can out-of-office replies help people manage work-life balance? Emma explained to me that coming up with rules is hard as people have varying needs.

Interviewee: Emma Russell

Any policy that has a kind of blanket rule on how we should deal with email is unlikely to succeed because we do know that people’s personal preferences do play a part, and so, if you’ve got somebody who needs to have the flexibility to deal with their email outside of working hours, to suddenly ban them from doing that can actually be quite negative for them in terms of their autonomy and in terms of them feeling in control of their work because suddenly someone’s telling them they can’t deal with all of the things they were hoping to deal with after 6 o’clock in the evening.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Emma suggested that there are some options, however. If you feel like you benefit from a clean break from time to time, then say you won’t be checking emails and stick to it. Whereas if you are comfortable with a more blurred boundary between work and home, Emma’s research suggests that you may actually be happier checking occasionally. Find what works best for you, and remember the world probably won’t end if you don’t check your email. Institutions can also help support academics by promoting a better email culture. Some universities have adopted email charters which encourage people to respect each other’s time and think before you send. For example, writing ‘I don’t expect an immediate response to this’, and ‘While I am sending this out-of-hours, I do not expect the same from you,’ can make a difference. Imagine yourself as the recipient, what sort of email would you like to receive? I asked Stephana if she had any advice for people struggling with work-life balance after reflecting on the hundreds of replies she received to her viral tweet. She had two words.

Interviewee: Stephana Cherak

Be kind. I really think that being kind is about ensuring the future of academia, and I think that by being kind to ourselves first and foremost, we might help to make academia as a whole just a little bit kinder too.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

That was Stephana Cherak from the University of Calgary in Canada. You also heard from Emma Russell from the University of Sussex in the UK. Thanks to James DeGregory for reading his email poem for me and to some of the Nature staff for reading some email examples. You can find the careers article on the topic of out-of-office replies written by Stephana over at nature.com/careers. There you’ll also find more on work-life balance and navigating the trials and tribulations of academia.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Later on, we’ll have more updates on the emerging coronavirus outbreak. But first, it’s time for the Research Highlights, read this week by Dan Fox.

[Jingle]

Dan Fox

If you’re concerned about your carbon footprint, you might make sure to try and eat locally sourced foods. But a team of researchers have found that when it comes to oranges, being green isn’t always easy. The team from the University of California in the US looked at the emissions associated with orange production. They found that fruit that had travelled a longer distance didn’t always have higher greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, oranges shipped via cargo boat from Chile to New York have six times less impact than oranges shipped by truck from Mexico, despite travelling twice the distance. Location is still important though. They found that the carbon cost of an orange could as much as double from one city to the next, and that enjoying an orange out of season could have a carbon footprint 51% higher than eating the same fruit at a different time of year. Unpeel the rest of that research at Environmental Research Letters.

[Jingle]

Dan Fox

Hello, these are the Research Highlights. Yes, they are. Would you like some more lovely science? Don’t worry, this isn’t a new format for the podcast. It’s an example of parentese – the high-pitched, slow-tempo speaking style often used when interacting with babies. Previous studies have suggested that it helps them learn to speak. Now, the team from the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington have been looking into whether coaching parents in parentese can help improve language development in their children. 71 families with six-month-old infants were involved in the randomised trial, with some parents receiving feedback on their interactions with their children and ideas for activities that could help enhance language development. The team found that families who received these interventions did speak more parentese, and the children showed increased language development by the time they were 18 months old. Children of coached parents produced real words such as ‘banana’ or ‘milk’ almost twice as much as those with parents in the control group. Find even more ‘real’ words about that research in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

[Jingle]

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Finally on this week’s show, it’s time for the News Chat and it’s an extended News Chat this week. Joining me in the studio are Ewen Callaway, Davide Castelvecchi and Lizzie Gibney, all senior reporters here at Nature. Thank you all so much for joining me. Ewen, let’s go to you first and talk about the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. Now, we’re recording this at the beginning of the week and this does remain a developing story, but what’s been happening since you were on the show this time last week?

Interviewee: Ewen Callaway

Oh gosh, it’s hard to remember what’s changed. I mean, the outbreak continues apace, especially in China and especially in Wuhan and in Hubei Province. We’re seeing thousands more cases, dozens more deaths, more cases outside of China and in some instances, we’re seeing limited human-to-human transmission outside of China.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And at the end of last week, the WHO took a big step in potentially trying to control the outbreak.

Interviewee: Ewen Callaway

Yeah, exactly. The World Health Organization has set up an emergency response committee to coordinate its response to this outbreak, and a week prior, it had a two-day meeting in which it decided not to declare the outbreak a public-health emergency of international concern. Last week, after another meeting, it changed that decision and decided that this constitutes a global health emergency.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

What does this mean for efforts to control the virus?

Interviewee: Ewen Callaway

I think it’s a signal to governments around the world that this is something that they need to be paying attention to and developing plans for, and in the justification for the announcement, the WHO emphasised that it’s really, I wouldn’t say worried, but the focus is on lower resource countries that might not have capacity to easily deal with this and that we need to be really thinking about what happens when this virus gets to certain countries in Africa or other parts of Asia etc.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, reports are coming out right now, Ewen, suggesting that deaths from this virus in China are higher than in the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003. Last time you were on the show, you were talking about the beginnings of looking at the genetic information within this virus, and it seems like there may be some similarities between the two.

Interviewee: Ewen Callaway

I think we’ve known from when the first genome sequence was made public in early- to mid-January that this is a virus closely related to SARS and other viruses that have been found since that 2002-2003 outbreak that tend to circulate in bats. It’s not identical by any means, but it is related to this kind of broader group of viruses. I think we’re seeing more and more genome sequences come out – I think it’s in the 50s – that are publically available from around the world, and people are starting to study the distribution of these. It’s clear from then that the virus is spreading in humans, which was abundantly clear anyway. A colleague of mine said that one of the major unanswered questions that people are quite interested in is the animal source of this outbreak. We know that these viruses circulate in bats but we think it’s another intermediate animal that might be responsible, and apparently testing of a wild animal in a fish market in Wuhan, where we think is the epicentre of the outbreak, turned up some environmental DNA – this is just what I’ve heard – and that could help pin that down and figure out what genetic changes are potentially needed to make the jump to humans. A lot of this we don’t really know.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And you’ve been looking at labs trying to grow live virus, and what sort of inferences can researchers make from that sort of thing?

Interviewee: Ewen Callaway

Yeah, so this is kind of a different but kind of definitely a related chain of research. So, a handful of labs around the world are working on culturing the virus from patient samples in China, in Europe, in Hong Kong and in the US, and they’re getting ready to share these virus samples with other labs worldwide. I guess this is just kind of ramping up the study of this virus. They want to develop animal models that mimic human infection so they can test drugs and vaccines. They want to develop better tests for the infection. The current test is not very good and not very quick. They want to study the basic biology of this virus and how it compares to the virus that caused SARS and see what are the similarities and what are the differences and see, throughout this outbreak, are we seeing changes to make this virus more or less virulent, more or less transmissible, those sorts of questions. So, I think in the coming days, we’re going to see virology labs around the world really kind of snap into action as they get hold of samples.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, without meaning to sound like a broken record and ask you this for the third time in as many weeks, what do we think happens next?

Interviewee: Ewen Callaway

I mean we’re going to continue to see more cases, especially in China and Wuhan – that much is clear. I guess the question is are measures being taken in China? Are they going to eventually cause a plateau in the number of new cases? That remains to be seen. And I guess we’re going to be looking at cases appearing in other countries and whether we get sustained transmission there, and instead of just one person who came from China or Wuhan spreading it to a spouse or a close contact, are we getting secondary and tertiary additional spread? I don’t think there’s any evidence that that’s happening. So, yeah, it’s just kind of watch and wait, but just a reminder that most of this is happening in China and especially in Wuhan. That’s where the vast majority of cases and the vast majority of deaths are. That’s where a lot of the urgent epidemiology is.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, let’s move on to the second story today in this extended News Chat. Davide, let’s keep it on the world stage. You’ve been taking a dive into nuclear weapons, and specifically whether Iran will be able to develop one in the near future.

Interviewee: Davide Castelvecchi

Yes, Iran has been a recurring concern for non-proliferation experts, and Iran has always denied that it has ever intended to build nuclear weapons, and the recent escalating tensions have kind of renewed these worries.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, you’ve asked various nuclear experts for their opinion on how soon Iran could potentially build an atomic bomb. What are some of the key questions you’ve asked them? I guess the first instance is what do they need to get in order to go ahead with this sort of endeavour?

Interviewee: Davide Castelvecchi

Yeah, the biggest bottleneck is always getting the fissile material, but also there’s obviously a lot of technical expertise that goes into building nuclear weapons. As a result of the US walking away from the nuclear deal that Iran signed in 2015, Iran now has moved towards being closer to readiness in terms of how long it takes for it to get enough weapons-grade uranium. Around the time when the deal was signed, about five years ago, the estimate was that as a consequence of the deal, this time would be pushed back to about one year – that was, in fact, the stated goal of the deal. And now, some experts say that it could be as little as two or three months.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

What else have you been asking the experts and what have they been telling you?

Interviewee: Davide Castelvecchi

The other major question is, assuming that Iran had decided to get weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium – enough of it to make a bomb – what else would they need to do to actually build one? And this is where there’s a lot of uncertainty because it’s not clear how much progress Iran had made in previous decades in its research and development, but a lot of experts say that it’s probably not very close to building a bomb, even if it did have the fissile material, so we could be looking at as long as two years.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

What’s the gut feeling of the experts you spoke to? Do they think that Iran is actively trying to develop a bomb?

Interviewee: Davide Castelvecchi

Well, I tried to talk to kind of a range of experts, from people who had been involved in the negotiations in 2015 to people who had looked at them from the outside and been very sceptical, being kind of more on the hawkish side of being more assertive against Iran. They all seem to agree that Iran has not made a deliberate decision to go ahead and build a bomb.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, finally then on this week’s News Chat, Lizzie, at 11pm UK time last Friday, the United Kingdom left the European Union. So, that’s it, put a bow on it, Brexit’s done, right?

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

Brexit is just getting going, really. So, at 11pm, the UK left the European Union, technically, but it entered a transition period. So, that means that basically the relationship is frozen for this year and pretty much everything stays the same as it is now until the end of December 2020. But what will get going now are the negotiations between the two sides over what that future relationship will actually look like beyond the end of this year.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And we haven’t talked about Brexit for a while, Lizzie. You’ve been looking at what this might mean for science, this transitionary period.

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

Yes, I had a blissful break over Christmas, as, hopefully, did some of our listeners, from thinking about Brexit. So, well, what will it mean for science? Science in the UK is very interlinked with that of Europe. UK scientists get between €1 billion and €1.5 billion every year from Europe, so this future relationship is really important. The negotiations about whether the UK will be able to be part of the new research programme that the European Union is bringing in from 2021 called Horizon Europe, that is really what is key at the moment. The UK would like to be a part of this programme, but there are many buts and caveats surrounding it. So, there needs to be a negotiation over whether that will even be possible and whether the UK is willing to pay as much as the EU will want it to pay to be a part of it.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Yes, because at the moment, the UK gets a lot of money out of Europe for science funding through the Horizon 2020 programme, but that looks like it is going to change then.

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

Absolutely, so at the moment, the UK gets a lot more out than it puts in to the research programmes. That will almost certainly change. So, if the UK does stay part of Horizon Europe then it will be on more of a quid pro quo basis. It will have to pay for whatever it takes out. There are still loads of reasons to be a part of that, and there are lots of intangibles as well. There are loads of benefits in terms of infrastructure and ease of collaboration, which you can’t really quantify, so it’s definitely something that UK scientists really want to happen, but it will depend on whether the science minister can convince the Treasury that this bill, which may come in at about €10 billion over the seven years of the programme, whether that is worth it given that the programme is really quite a wide one that includes not only the flagship grants like the European Research Council grants but also lots more kind of applied programmes and things which are really about European priorities, which the UK was a part of but won’t be anymore.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And aside from just cash, this transition is about people as well. At the moment, researchers are free to move around Europe and work in different labs, and that’s a key part of science, it seems to be. What may happen moving forwards?

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

So, the British government has said that freedom of movement is something that will end from next year. They don’t yet have an immigration system to put in place to replace that, of course, but that’s what they’ve said. But they have introduced or they’ve kind of upgraded and revamped a scheme that already existed, a visa scheme for scientists, so in theory that will mean that it’s easier for researchers to come into the UK than it might be for people from other professions. So, there are kind of special measures already in place. This UK government is very hot on science. They like to talk about how pro-science they are. So, it may be that that is enough for the Commission, the European Union side who’s doing the negotiating. What I probably should have brought in is the fact that you have so many different elements that make up this deal, so there’s the money part, there is, is there enough freedom of movement for researchers for it even to be worth the UK being a part of this programme, there are also things like regulations. All of those really come out of a wider trade deal, which is what the UK will be trying to negotiate with the EU throughout this whole year. So, one of the big issues is whether we will even get to thinking about science and any of these issues over individual visas for scientists because we really need to set the playing field in the first place.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

I’m not an expert in trade negotiations, but 11 months does seem like quite an optimistic amount of time to get all of this complicated stuff done.

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

Optimistic, ambitious – absolutely. In fact, one exercise found that the chance of being able to agree a wider trade deal in the first place in 11 months is remote and the chance of trying to actually get a science deal on top of that is therefore even more remote. So, at the moment, it’s looking quite pessimistic that anything can be agreed in time.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, Lizzie, thank you very much for that update, and thank you, Ewen and Davide, for joining me as well. Listeners, head over to nature.com/news for more on these stories.

Host: Nick Howe

And if you want to hear more from Davide, he’s presenting a new three-part video series on our YouTube channel called Inside Japan’s Big Physics. It takes you on a tour of three enormous experiments that are trying to answer some of physics’ most fundamental questions. Find that over at youtube.com/NatureVideoChannel. I’m Nick Howe.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And I’m Benjamin Thompson. Thanks for listening.