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  • CAREER COLUMN

Coronavirus diaries: taking leave, but not holiday

Open book with a sketch of a video game controller

Credit: Adapted from Getty

So here we are, nine weeks on, and workwise nothing has changed since the start of the UK lockdown. There have been a few minor social differences: depending on which of the four UK countries you are in, you are now allowed to have a cup of tea at a 2-metre distance with up to either six or eight people (or more as long as they’re from no more than two households). But this hasn’t materially shaped how I am having to do my job.

Stupidly, I had convinced myself that we would be back to normal by now. One of the important skills of a scientific career is managing your own expectations, while also backing yourself to the hilt. As in – I am good enough to get this grant, so I will apply, but I won’t immediately quit if it doesn’t get funded. Expectation management has been particularly important during lab closure. Sadly, I have failed to manage my own expectations several times, particularly with regard to when things were going to return to normal. After a short e-mail exchange with an epidemiologist colleague, I made an arbitrary decision that the worst of the first wave of the pandemic in the United Kingdom would be over by Monday 18 May. I was sort of right — the daily case numbers and the death rate did start to decline around this time. However, this didn’t trigger an immediate lifting of lockdown (and, in hindsight, it was never going to).

Passing this arbitrary, self-imposed, line in the sand has helped me to understand that this is going to be a long process. I am not going to be going back in work five days a week for a long time. Realizing that we are going to be in this state for the long haul has triggered some reflection about the past ten weeks and the road ahead.

Taking stock

In terms of the physical and practical aspects of lockdown, since UK lockdown began on 23 March, I have: cooked 210 meals and run the dishwasher 90,000 times (± 89,910 times); walked, run or cycled 470 kilometres; drunk more wine than I want to admit; finished 10 TV series, 3 video games, 2 books and one sudoku; got through 16 kilograms of bread flour, baking terrible sourdough but passable pitta, naan and pizza; made smoked salmon, sausages, chorizo and wild-garlic pesto; been to the lab twice and had my hair cut at home once; planted cress (died), chilli (didn’t germinate) and sunflowers (surviving); fought and had fun with my children in equal measure; had 6 days of holiday but not a single holiday.

More importantly, I have had some time to reflect on the nature of my job. The main realization is that I still love science. This is great news, because quite a lot of my job as a scientist revolves around science. At the very start of this process, I wondered about what it meant to be a scientist without a lab. The answer is that it has been, and continues to be, quite odd. I miss the dynamism of projects moving forward, the excitement of experiments coming to fruition, the planning of the next steps. The times I have felt happiest at work in lockdown have been when I was doing my favourite two aspects of the job — writing (papers and reviews) and thinking of new ideas.

Busywork versus research

The problem has been that I haven’t had the time or head space to do as much science as I would normally. This has largely been because I have been bogged down in ‘busywork’ rather than ‘research work’. This includes the numerous meetings, deadlines and processes that are generated by the job but are not directly thinking, doing or writing science. Before lockdown, with more work time available, it was just about possible to balance these and still get some research done.

Having miscalculated how long I was going to be stuck at home, juggling parenting and working, there were quite a few of these things that I took on and then kicked into the long grass, assuming that I could fetch them back once we had returned. But I haven’t been able to recover, and my to-do list has now metastasized into its second page. This situation isn’t going to get better. I now have only 20 hours per week. Even cutting out the usual time I spend having tea and chatting to colleagues, I cannot do everything I used to. I really noticed it this week, when I took two days of annual leave to try to clear my head, only to feel twice as stressed when I returned.

I am going to have to start prioritizing even more. This is stressful, because choosing comes with opportunity costs — are the things I am turning down just busywork, or actually crucial? It’s always difficult to select between the action with the best long-term pay-off and the ones that are shouting to be done right now, but the task is now harder than ever, compounded by social pressures of not wanting to let people down.

Hopefully, as I come to terms with the current situation, I will find a sweet spot in which I can do the work I need to do at the same time as planning for the future, when things return (somewhat) to normal. If not, there is always more bread to bake and kilometres to run.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-01696-9

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