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  • CAREER COLUMN

How a lab happiness programme is helping me through the COVID-19 crisis

A woman sticks brightly-coloured labels to screens labelled 'Dream team' and 'Values'.

A team member uses a tool from the happiness programme at a lab retreat.Credit: Michiel Kleinnijenhuis

At the beginning of 2019, my laboratory began a happiness programme. The principal investigator, Anne Rios, felt that she could not keep the 17-member team happy and cohesive solely through her management. Everyone would have to take action towards achieving their own work-related happiness, to create an environment and team structure in which our personalities, talents and ambitions could flourish, while advancing our common research goal.

I am sure our initiative raised a few eyebrows here and there in our paediatric-oncology institute — to be honest, I was sceptical about it myself, at first. My concerns had mostly to do with the time investment, given that our research field is already demanding and competitive. However, we learnt to use small tools and techniques that are not time-consuming, and the programme turned out to be prescient: what we’ve learnt on our happiness journey is now helping us to cope with the stresses of working from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

The programme was designed and led by Herman Bos, a professional happiness coach. It was intense, but also highly versatile. It started off at a personal level, with individual homework assignments and one-to-one coaching sessions. Once we had learnt about our own professional attitudes and preferred ways of working, we moved towards team-building sessions to improve the organization of our group. Importantly, the programme was designed to give us useful tools, so that we would be equipped to keep boosting our professional happiness without external guidance. We are now putting together our own tailored programme, focusing on the areas we feel we could improve and benefit from most.

Know thyself

We began by taking an extensive online questionnaire. The 240 questions and our responses to them were scored on the basis of the ‘big 5’ personality traits: openness, extraversion, conscientiousness, altruism and neuroticism. These each represent a range between two extremes: extraversion, for example, includes introversion on the low end of the spectrum. Using the resulting personality reports, we learnt about our own and each other’s personalities.

Being aware of your own personality provides a unique opportunity to act out of character: if you are an outgoing person, say, you can choose to give space in meetings for other people to comment. Or if you are naturally shy, you can make an effort to speak up. This hopefully creates a space where everyone has a chance to offer ideas, opinions and criticism.

We were also taught how we could work together more effectively by keeping in mind each other’s distinct traits. This could be as simple as reserving the quiet spots in our otherwise noisy office for members with a more introverted personality, or as ambitious as trying to identify bigger issues underneath small annoyances.

The latter we accomplished in our ‘iceberg meetings’, aimed at exploring what’s below the surface: the motivations, perceptions, expectations and feelings that stir your behaviour. These meetings are for colleagues who have difficulties interacting with each other, and typically involve only two people. The goal is to stop making assumptions based on what you see on the surface, and to ask and openly discuss what’s really going on and where conflict is coming from. These meetings can be quite intense, but they provide a powerful way to connect and create an open and safe atmosphere.

Personal growth

We also developed personal learning goals by recognizing specific areas in our professional routines that we wished to improve on, and defining steps to achieve that. We started working on these goals individually through homework assignments, but kept fine-tuning them and evaluated our progress through one-to-one sessions with the happiness coach and in group sessions.

I had recently joined the lab as a scientific writer after a postdoc position at the bench. Therefore, my overall goal was to feel more comfortable and confident in this new role. We learnt the hard way that being realistic was important; design giant leaps instead of baby steps, and you set yourself up for failure and disappointment. For me, that meant letting go of the idea of taking a demanding training course amid a continuum of deadlines. Instead, I aimed to set aside small bits of personal time for development and growth.

We used defined tools to work towards our goals. A ‘Troika’ meeting, for example, is a forum designed to elicit immediate practical support from direct colleagues by boiling down a discussion to increase positive feedback. Colleagues come up with feedback and advice while the person seeking support is facing the other way. This ensures that facial expressions are not part of the conversation, which creates a neutral and focused environment. At the end, the person receiving support summarizes the advice they have taken from the session, providing an opportunity to fine-tune and readjust their interpretation.

We ran a practice Troika session for a colleague struggling with back problems, who had arrived at a phase in her career where computer work dominated over lab work and pressure started to intensify. We offered solutions including setting realistic goals to relieve pressure, and writing down unfinished tasks at the end of the day to give a sense of closure, even though the work is never done. We found a simple and practical solution, too: ordering a standing office desk to help alleviate the back pain.

We also practised a step-by-step reflection process called the circle of eight. Amid all the peer support and group feedback, I found this tool quite refreshing, because it’s more individualistic: it helps to develop personal control over a situation that is bothering you. One of the first steps is to recognize and accept your situation. From there, you can ask yourself: ‘What are my options?’ For me, step one was accepting that work taking over my personal life was not beyond my control; rather, I was making an active choice in prioritizing it. With that, I immediately felt better about the situation by no longer feeling out of control and powerless about it.

The colour of happiness

We also now use a simple score in our weekly lab meeting: every person starts by stating their overall happiness level using a colour code. Green means you are happy; red signifies that you are not doing well; and yellow is somewhere in between. You don’t have to explain why you are a certain colour if you don’t want to. Your mental state might be related to work, but it might also be caused by events in your personal life.

What’s important is that when we know each other’s state of well-being at the start of our week (our lab meetings are on a Monday morning), we can act on it and keep expectations lower or try to support each other where we can. This might seem simplistic, but it has proved very effective in two ways. First, it provides an easy way to perceive how everyone is doing: if a colleague is in the red, we check in and see if we can help. Second, it sends a clear and important message: you are not invisible, and your well-being matters to all of us.

That’s also why we implemented a buddy system: two lab members partner up and make an effort to take special notice of and responsibility for each other’s happiness. This can be as simple as inviting your buddy for coffee when you see them in the red or continuous yellow.

Our Monday meetings, colour sharing and use of other tools continue in virtual meetings during the coronavirus pandemic, and all are helping us to stay connected and cope. After I mentioned being yellow just once, my buddy sent me an invitation for a virtual coffee chat. This demonstrates the beauty of the system: I am typically quite green, so yellow to my buddy meant ‘coffee time’.

To ensure that information travels fast and that we can act quickly if one of us is not doing well, we expanded our buddy system to include three or four people, who check in regularly on each other. This is especially important with so many of our international group members living by themselves, while their families are far away in other, sometimes more-at-risk, countries. We are making sure that they are OK throughout this crisis and, although we can never replace their actual family members, we try to be their family away from home.

By using our colour-coded happiness scores and talking through what could otherwise be uncomfortable topics in our iceberg meetings, we’ve created an environment in which we are truly connected to each other, where we listen without judgement and where it is okay to share our anxiety. Although we’re now physically separated from each other, these tools help me to feel that I’m still part of a solid and supportive team. We are probably still a long way from returning to work as normal, but we are in a strong position to resurface as the happy and supportive lab that we are.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-01686-x

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

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