Saying “No” at Work

May 22, 2018

A picutre of tree bark with the words It can be anxiety producing to turn down work from a fellow colleague, or even worse, your boss. Sometimes, though, that is exactly what you need to do. In most work settings, especially competitive ones, employees want to be looked upon favorably as the “go-to person” or as a “good team player”. The problem happens when you take on too much and volunteer to pitch in on one too many projects. When doing so, you run the risk of not being as effective at your other tasks and it could leave you feeling stressed and stretched too thin.

If you have already fully assessed the request and plan to say “no” here are a few things to keep in mind as you say this small but powerful two-lettered word.

Give yourself permission to say “no”.
Even at work. Often people agree to requested tasks or favors simply because they fear disappointing the requestor. At work, you should earnestly evaluate whether you have the bandwidth to help with the request and you should always show a willingness to pitch in; however, you can still say no. When doing so, ask if priorities should be shifted to accommodate this request or volunteer to help in smaller or tangential ways for the project. Saying no at work doesn’t mean you are a bad employee, but rather that you are aware of your own personal time constraints and want to be respectful to all involved on the project.

Say it with the right tone.
This can be a hard one to do, especially if you feel stressed and overwhelmed by the request. Sometimes answers can come out overly harsh, so try not to conflate your overall feelings about your workload with this one favor. Sometimes it is best to buy yourself more time and say “Can I follow up with you in a few minutes? My mind is focused on X right now.” Then take some time to gather your thoughts and practice your approach.

Be firm with your boundary.
It is equally important not to waver or appear too hesitant when saying no. Be courteous but assertive. You might say, “I’m sorry I can’t be of help right now and I will let you know if that changes in the next few weeks.” This puts you in the position to follow up instead of inviting questions from the requestor of the “If…then” variety. Don’t give the requestor false hope that your answer may change by talking too much about shifting variables. Make sure your no is firmly understood.

If saying no to requests at work (or outside of work, for that matter!) is difficult for you, then you might benefit from the assertiveness workshops. If you are at the NIH, feel free to attend the workshop entitled “Speaking Up: How to Ask For What You Need in the Lab and in Life” on June 19. The OITE also has some resources that might be helpful, including the OITE Career Library. One book you might be particularly interested in is: When I Say No, I Feel Guilty by Manuel J. Smith, PhD.

 

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FROM THE ARCHIVE: Keep Stress From Derailing Your Work and Life

April 3, 2018

Post written by Sharon Milgram, Ph.D., Director, Office of Intramural Training and Education at the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD.

Many of our trainees are currently managing the anxiety and pressures that accompany the job and graduate/professional school application process. This From the Archive post will offer insightful perspectives and strategies that will help you manage these pressures effectively.

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Stress is inevitable – in our relationships, at home and at work, pretty much all around us. At NIH our stresses include experimental roadblocks, bureaucracy, paper and grant rejections, the school/job search process, difficult workplace relationships, and/or the craziness of juggling our work and life. On top of these normal (and expected) workplace stresses, many of us are now experiencing a high level of stress related to the uncertainty of future government policies, here and abroad.  While some stress can be helpful, driving us to work hard and focus on things that are important to us, too much stress is counter-productive leading to sleepless nights, negative coping strategies, frayed relationships, and illness. Now, more than ever, we all need to pause and consider how we respond to stress and how we can work together as a community to manage the stress that seems to be swirling around us. I often talk with NIH trainees and staff about managing stress and wanted to share some insights from those discussions.

I will begin by laying out a brief model for wellness we developed here at OITE that is rooted in acknowledging that we need to focus on multiple elements to truly lead a healthy and less stressed life.  This holistic approach to wellness prompts us to consider four areas – our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual selves.

Wellness Model

Physical wellness includes things such as getting enough sleep, eating nutritional meals, exercising, avoiding harmful substances, getting regular health care, and taking breaks when we need them.  Mental wellness involves modifying unhelpful thought patterns (e.g., ruminating about the past/worrying about the future vs. paying attention to the present, perfectionism, comparing ourselves to others, negative self-tapes), as well as practicing self-affirmations and allowing the mind to engage in new things that interest us.  Emotional wellness focuses on being able to recognize and feel our emotions, expressing our needs honestly and directly, asking for help when we need it, creating and staying connected to a supportive circle of friends and family, and demonstrating compassion for ourselves and others.  Finally, spiritual wellness is about cultivating what gives us a sense of deeper meaning, purpose, and connection in our lives.  For some people this is done through religious beliefs and practices, while for others it is found in non-sectarian areas, such as nature, the world of science, social justice initiatives, creative endeavors and so on.  Whatever the arena, spiritual wellness involves having a connection to something beyond ourselves, seeking out resources that nurture us spiritually, investing time in what is most meaningful to us, reading books and/or watching inspirational media, and engaging in activities that support our life’s purpose.  It also means learning how to be a human being instead of a human doing.  It’s important to pay attention to all four areas as any one area affects our well-being in the other three.  Holistic wellness also involves increasing our mindfulness or awareness of how we’re doing in each area in order to practice good self-care.

After looking carefully at my own wellness practices and noticing some important gaps, I started experimenting with some new approaches. I am sharing my new strategies here, and hope you will share yours in the comments section, with the hope that more explicit discussions about wellness will help all of us all have an easier time during these stressful times. I recently compiled a playlist of upbeat songs and am trying to take more mindful walks (physical, emotional, and spiritual wellness). I realized I needed to stop reading the news at night and have replaced surfing the internet with a good novel or calm conversation with my wife (mental and emotional wellness). To learn more meditation strategies (a big struggle for me!) I participated in a class where we meditated each time we met (mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness).  My most fun wellness addition — I am learning to box! This is one exercise that totally takes me out of my head while relieving huge amounts of stress (physical and mental awareness). We all have a different set of wellness practices that work for us; let me know what wellness practices work for you; perhaps your ideas will inspire others!

Resilience is defined as the ability to grow and learn through setback and difficult times. The foundation of resilience is wellness and a foundation of wellness is community. If you wish to bring your most creative and resilient self to work (and beyond) each day, make an investment in your future by engaging with your colleagues at work and by finding sources of community at home.  Also, join us next week for our Tune in and Take Care workshop focused on stress management, wellness and resilience on the Bethesda campus and watch for offerings on other campuses as well. Get involved in groups on campus and make an effort to get to know the people around you. And get out there and move…. sing…. dance…. paint…. meditate…. connect…… pray…. hike…. whatever makes you more resilient and happy!

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Visit the OITE website to learn about the variety of services offered to trainees.  We invite you to join us for the Spring 2018 Tune in and Take Care workshop or our weekly Mindfulness Meditation workshops.  Also, check out the new Graduate Student Discussion Group, the Postbac Discussion Group or the Post Doc Stress Discussion Group.  We invite our readers beyond NIH to access similar services in your community to help you with ongoing wellness and stress management.

 


Handling Unanticipated Interruptions at Work

February 5, 2018

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One of the most predictable workplace variables that successful scientists can learn to control for is an unexpected work interruption.   These breaks in service can range from changes in staffing and equipment malfunctions to anticipated breaks in the work due to the economy and/or inclement weather. Naturally, during such events (predictable or not), you will experience a range of reactions including awkward excitement, anxiety, fear, panic, frustration, anger or even avoidance and denial.  As a future professional, you will be expected to have the skills to manage such reactions and continue to act professionally as a leader. In fact, when you are applying to graduate/professional schools and jobs, you probably be asked questions about how you handle ambiguity or unanticipated changes in the workplace. Here are some helpful suggestions to help you cope with these disruptions in a positive way.

Accept the unexpected. Plan for it. Follow the leader.

You will handle workplace surprises with more confidence if you accept the reality that they will happen in general. To prepare yourself, ask your PI (or incorporate) plans to manage your research study. For example, if you are in a lab, review and follow established procedures for managing all aspects your research project during challenging times. If none exist, then consider taking the lead in designing a plan based on what you learn in the current situation. Feel free to consult others who have survived the interruptions in the past and follow their suggestions.

Heed the warning

Read your emails from administration, watch the news, listen to co-workers who you trust and your PI to be able to forecast interruptions. If you get advanced warnings, then take them seriously as discussed earlier. Avoidance will only increase your anxiety and leave you to struggle.

Take a deep breath. Be Optimistic

Communicate using a realistic and positive tone to your co-workers and subordinates to stay resilient during this time.  For example, you could say, “While this is inconvenient, we need put the following procedure in action to maintain the integrity and future focus of our project moving forward.” Also utilize reframe any negative thinking and shift to a can-do attitude. For example, shift from a typical woe is me response such as “I cannot believe this is happening to me,” or “this is ridiculous” to “I (we) can handle this. Let’s put a plan together to keep the work moving forward”

Respond professionally

Using the problem-solving strategy of emotionally detaching and focusing on the moment will allow you to stay calm and in control of your emotions, and analyze the situation. Focusing on what is lost or interrupted has the potential will give the impression that you are ill equipped to handle change and ambiguity. By focusing on the present situation and setting up a plan, this will engage you in moving towards the future and communicate trust and optimism from your co-workers.

Take care of yourself. Practice wellness.

In these situations, be sure to factor in your personal wellness as part of the plan. In OITE, we encourage you to practice self-care during these times and suggest that you read and incorporate the strategies suggested Dr. Sharon Milgram’s blog about how to keep stress from derailing your work and life. For those of you who may have anticipate a break in work, we suggest viewing Michael Sheridan’s Special Advisor for Diversity and Wellness Programs article, Waiting is Hard to Do, for suggestions on incorporating wellness activities while waiting.   These plans can include taking walks, going to a movie, or even seek counseling to help you cope.

If you feel that you need further support, feel free to utilize all OITE workshop, counseling, and advising services to help you manage during these times. Our extended readers are encouraged to utilize similar resources in your area.


The Way to Go: SMART Career Resolutions

January 8, 2018

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Happy New Year!  It is that time of year to make career resolutions that you will accomplish during the next 12 months.  Two years ago, in the New Year Careers Blog we suggested that trainees make an appointment with a career counselor.   This year, to be more confident that you will accomplish your career goals , we suggest that you utilize the SMART goals strategy, Specific,Measurable, Achievable, Results driven, Time-specific when creating your resolutions.  Using this strategy will take you further..faster!  Here are some detailed examples for fellows to consider as you create your career resolutions for 2018.

Postbacs

General Resolution:        Apply or re-apply to Medical School

SMART Resolution:          By June 15, 2018 I will submit my completed error-free AMCAS or AACOMAS application for admission to medical school. I will have attended an OITE Applying to Medical School workshop, had a personal statement critique, reviewed and edited my AMCAS application, used MSAR to  identify a list of 15 medical schools (3 reach schools, 10 within in range and 2 safety schools), achieved my MCAT score goal by June 1, 2018 (before I apply), obtained all letters of references needed, have obtained sufficient direct patient care, research, and leadership experience.

Graduate Students

General Resolution:         Apply for postdocs

SMART Resolution:          On June 2, 2018 (or 6 months prior to completion of my doctoral degree of my) I will apply for at least 4 postdoctoral research fellowships with a clean, critiqued, error-free CV, application letter, research statement that I created utilizing OITE career counseling, workshops resources, talks with my PhD advisor, NIH PI, science professional associations, and researchers that I meet at conferences.

Postdocs, Visiting and Clinical Fellows

General Goal:                                    Start applying for jobs

SMART Academic Resolution:     One June 1, 2018 (or eight months prior to the last day of my post doc) I will apply for 2 academic jobs with an CV, Cover Letter, Research and Teaching statements, and a well-developed job talk presentation that have been critiqued by OITE staff and my PI.

SMART Industry Resolution:        One June 1, 2018 (or 6 months before post doc ends) I will apply to jobs in a chosen industry with my resume, cover letter that has been reviewed by an OITE career counselor. I will have had a mock interview for industry positions, attended the Career Symposium in May 2018, conducted 3 informational interviews

Please join the OITE team for our January Wellness event,  Setting Goals for the Upcoming Year, on January 18, 2018, 2:00-3:30pm, Building 50 Room 1227.

 


Waiting is Hard to Do

December 18, 2017

Blog written by Michael J. Sheridan, MSW, PhD, Special Advisor for Diversity and Wellness Programs, Michael.sheridan@nih.gov

It is December 2017, and while many are preparing for holidays, if you are trainee, you are probably asking yourself, “I haven’t heard back from a number of medical schools, is there something I can do to move them along? Should I assume I won’t get in?  Will I get an interview at the graduate programs that I applied to?  I am waiting to hear from academic positions …is there anything I can do?  The good news is that, if you haven’t heard anything yet, you are still being considered. With the holidays fast approaching, it is probable that most communication will resume in the new year.  The reality is that waiting for a response is hard thing to do.

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Dr. Michael Sheridan, Special Advisor for Diversity and Wellness Programs offers some strategies to help and writes that an area to be aware of while you wait is what is going on in your mind – specifically, the “inner chatter” that is present. It’s important to realize that you “talk” to yourself more than anyone else and thus, what you are saying makes a difference.  There are two particular qualities of this inner chatter to be mindful of – the “when” and the “what.”

The “when” of your inner dialogue refers to how much the mind is focused on either the past (“I wish I had remembered to put X in my application.” “I should have had so and so critique my letter before I sent it.”) or the future (“What will I do if I don’t get any interviews?” “If I don’t hear back from them by the end of this week, it means I didn’t get in”).  The reality of both past and future musings (or let’s face it, worrying) is that it is truly wasted effort as you can’t change something that’s already happened and you can’t predict what is going to happen in the future!  The only moment you have any control of is the current moment – and even then, I’m talking about control of your own thoughts and behaviors – not the actions of others or the eventual outcome.  Focusing on what you can do versus what you can’t lowers anxiety and builds confidence.

The “what” of your inner chatter has to do with the overall message or tone of what you are saying to yourself.  Are your thoughts harshly self-critical? (“I know I did a terrible job on that personal essay – I probably sounded really stupid”) Do they have a doomsday or “catastrophizing” flavor to them? (“I didn’t get this position, which means I won’t get any of the others I applied for either”)  Or are they balanced and positive? (“I know I won’t get accepted by everyone, but I probably won’t get rejected by everyone either” -“I’ve done the best I can and I can handle whatever the next step needs to be”).  A good thing to cultivate during the waiting is compassionate self-talk, or treating yourself with “the same kindness, care, and concern that you would treat a good friend” (Dr. Kristen Neff, www.self-compassion.com). So notice what you’re saying to yourself and if it is not supportive, ask yourself if you would say this to a good friend.  Chances are, you would offer something more encouraging, so try being your own good friend!

In addition to Dr. Sheridan’s suggestions above, we invite you to visit our most recent blog, where we suggested some activities to engage in during the holidays that will help you prepare to continue pursuing your career goals in 2018.  Also, be sure to visit our OITE web page as well to attend workshops and schedule an appointment with a career counselor.  If you are one of our extended community readers, please check with your home institution and local resources for career services. We will see you in 2018!


Blog Post: Avoid giving what you may catch: Keeping a healthy workplace a priority during the flu season

November 14, 2017

Written by Guest Blogger Shannon DeMaria Ph.D., Research Ethics Training Coordinator, Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE)

Lab and clinic life is can be demanding and relentlessly busy, resulting in schedules with little flexibility or time for impromptu absence. Unfortunately, the flu and similar bugs don’t care, and will circulate regardless.Meanwhile, experimental and clinical biology is difficult to pause. Your cells won’t split themselves, rounds need to be done, and maybe you can still make it in, plus or minus some medication to mask the symptoms.

But, should you? Losing a day could mean losing many days of progress, so the trade-off of that day off doesn’t look very valuable, does it?

 

You may also feel an unspoken and unhealthy pressure to demonstrate your dedication to your work by not taking time off due to personal discomfort. [(This can be seen as part of a broader culture, common in the sciences, of glorifying overwork simply for its own sake.)]

 There’s a word to describe this action: presenteeism. This is the act of being at work when you really shouldn’t be. When you’re immersed in your work, it can be hard to think about much else, but there are times you should look up from that notebook, computer, or clipboard. First – look after yourself! A restful break might be exactly what you need to recover more quickly. Second – look beyond yourself! Particularly in seasons when infectious diseases are spreading, you ought to consider that not staying home has broader impacts than your own immediate schedule.  The consequences of presenteeism include:

 

  • Potentially increased time being ill (and you want to minimize this, right?)
  • Loss of efficacy (you’re more likely to make mistakes.)
  • Loss of Productivity (you won’t be as capable as you think you might.)
  • Workplace epidemics (your co-workers will thank you for not being there.)
  • Future poor health and exhaustion (a repeating cycle that takes a toll.)

 

While you can’t hit ‘pause’ on your experiments, consider working out reciprocal or lab/group-wide arrangements where critical tasks could be temporarily reassigned. And when you do have to come in, precautions such as face masks and minimizing physical contact can be effective in preventing transmission. If you have to cancel something, remember that this happens to us all. Workplace outbreaks will spill into non-work environments, affecting families, children, and more. Ignoring your health and that of those around you can have long lasting and far-rippling costs you hadn’t thought of in that ‘stay home or not?’ calculus.

 Like vaccines, preventing workplace outbreaks has a cumulative or “herd” effect – the more people who are mindful of their practices while ill, the more effective the strategy of illness reduction becomes for all.

 Finally, keep in mind that we may work in an environment with people who are immunocompromised or otherwise highly susceptible to infectious disease. Staying home when you could spread something might seem like an inconvenience, but in reality can be crucial for promoting the NIH mission of public health. So, for your own sake, your co-workers’ sake, and the sake of our patients, please be mindful of the impacts of coming to work while infectious or feeling terrible. The cost of not taking time off may be far greater than you realize!

 

 


Navigating a career in science with disabilities and chronic illness

October 16, 2017

Blog is written by Shannon DeMaria Ph.D., Research Ethics Training Coordinator, Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE)

As October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), this post is dedicated to exploring these topics as they relate to those who are planning careers in the biomedical enterprise.

First a note: this post is going to make use of the broadest possible to definition of disability, keeping in mind that many people do not self-identify as having a disability or being disabled. [The language surrounding these topics is complex, but does not have to be a barrier to discussing them.]

As scientists at the NIH, we can probably all rattle off how the scientific question we are working on relates to human health. As humans ourselves, we may also be touched by some of them. The fact is there is no barrier between us, the diseases we study, the patients we see, and the rest of the population. That means that at some point in our life, or for the entirety of it, many of us will find ourselves navigating a serious illness, chronic illness, disability of some sort (which may be temporary or permanent), as well as having friends and loved ones who may experience the same.

According to the 2012 U.S. Census, 19% of Americans reported having some sort of disability. Among scientists that number drops to ~5% (reported by the National Science Foundation). It is likely that this is an underestimate at least partially driven by a decrease in self-identification. However, it also reflects an underrepresentation of people with disabilities in STEM careers. As such, it can be difficult to look around and see this aspect of ‘yourself’ represented in the scientific population. This may lead one to wonder: do I belong here? Is a scientific career compatible with “X”?

The answer is yes, but keeping in mind that there are many complexities and uncertainties that may arise. There are many factors to actively consider as you plan for your future career, and aspects of your own and your loved ones’ health should be among them. Some topics may be addressed proactively, avoiding what could have been predictable problems later. Some difficulties may prove to be unavoidable, and building breadth into your current training and flexibility into your future plans would help to minimize the stress and disruption that they cause.

Consider the following (non-comprehensive) list of issues that you may wish to build plans around:

  • Determining if you are comfortable with disclosure.
  • Identifying your needs.
  • Self-advocacy.
  • Forming meaningful networks.
  • Wellness.
  • Future career considerations.
  • Finances.
  • Exploring and Choosing science careers where you will be able to utilize your strengths or where your work can be reasonably accommodated.

Each one of these topics is complex and could easily span an entire article to themselves. They also apply broadly to the scientific workforce! This post cannot comprehensively cover them all but is meant to take a look at the larger picture and to provide a launching point for future conversations.

Here are some useful resources.

As scientists and humans, we should strive towards the goal of creating a culture of inclusiveness, beginning with visibility and discussion. And, in the end, remember that you are not alone.

OITE career services are available to NIH intramural trainees only. Check with your home university or college and utilize the personal, career, and professional school advising resources they offer to you.