For the "My Life in Science” seminar series The Babraham Institute has hosted women and men of diverse backgrounds - from senior scientists to young group leaders and people from outside academia. All of them presented their very personal view on their life in science. We are now collecting some of these stories to make them available as an inspirational resource.
The first case comes from Prof Adrian Liston from the VIB Translational Immunology Laboratory in Leuven, Belgium who gave an inspiring talk “Baby and me, plus an ERC” back in December 2016 . We have interviewed Adrian afterwards to learn more about how he integrates work and life, what challenges he faced and how he tackled them. Read further for his personal views.
Why did you want to achieve a good WLB?
I don’t really think that I have achieved a good work-life balance. I work a lot more than I probably should, and I don’t have much time or hobbies or the like. I would love to have the time to learn a language and spend every weekend and evening work-free. On the other hand, I really like my work. Working 9 to 5 doesn’t sound appealing to me, and I don’t really make an attempt to firewall work and life.
The one place where I would say that I achieved a good work-life balance was in parenting duties. Many fathers automatically step into the part-time parenting role, happy for the mother to take most of the parenting duties. For me this is ideologically incompatible with having an equal relationship. I am a passionate feminist, so I actively seek not to replicate the typical mistakes of fatherhood. Equality in my relationship with my wife is a must, and I want to be a good example to my son.
But that doesn’t mean I have work-life balance – sometimes I have too much work AND too much parenting. When decisions on priority need to be made, I make sure that the most important facets of life come first, but the less important parts of both work and life sometimes get sacrificed.
Why do you think you have achieved a good WLB?
To the extent that I have, it is because I have amazing people in my life. My wife is an inspiring example of being successful at both work and at home, the people I work with are both amazing colleagues and wonderful friends. It is the support network for when things get tough that is most important. The other really important trick is being able to say no. Sometimes that means saying no to parts of work that are not critical (to keep up the parts that are most important), sometimes it means choosing to say no to parts of home life that are less important (but always preserving the important moments).
What actions did you take to maintain / improve WLB?
The big decisions need to always include both work and life. Where will you live on both the macro (which country/city) and micro (neighbourhood) needs to consider both aspects. Does the country have good healthcare and parental support? Will that city provide good career options for both people, or is someone going to become a trailing spouse? Does this neighbourhood provide an easy way to enjoy weekends, and a minimal commute during the week? If you make the big decisions deliberately friendly to both work and life, then the everyday decisions tend to fall in the right direction. For example, when I was working in the US, everyone around me worked late every evening and the lab was full every weekend. I had to make an effort to notice the time and leave before everyone else just to be home before 10pm. In Belgium, if I leave at 7pm I am often one of the last in the building: one work environment promotes long hours, the other discourages it.
What was the rationale behind these decisions?
I only see one good reason for life choices: being happy. My ideal work-life balance is going to be different from someone else’s. You would think that optimal happiness is something that we automatically drift towards, but actually (for me at least, and, I suspect, many others) it takes an awareness and an effort to arrange your life to be happy.
What challenges / difficult situations did you experience?
Being a parent limits flexibility.
Out of hours activities are integral to job.
How did you manage difficult / bottleneck situations? Please give an example.
I took my child to meetings (despite not all reactions being supportive).
I stood by my decision and values.
I had excellent support, both professional and private (also see question 2).
What skills were used to manage it?
Improving my management skills (e.g. time management, delegation) and showing perseverance was essential.
How did the working environment (attitudes of leaders and colleagues, policies in place, general culture, etc.) impact on your plans to achieve a better WLB?
Like many research institutes, my institute is a negative impact on work-life balance. Pressure is high, and I suspect it is physically impossible to achieve the required objectives within a normal working week. To do anything other than put work first constantly is to be an outlier.
On the other hand, Belgium as a country is very positive on my work-life balance. The culture is generally built around assumptions of normal working hours, and we picked key aspects of our life (where we life, where we work, where our son goes to school) to make healthy choices easier. Doesn’t mean that we always make them, but to a certain extent it counteracts the work pressure.
What support did you receive (from employer / national system / family)?
The Belgian system is very good for young families – full day crèche from three months of age, great support from in-home nurse care during days when the child is sick, high quality schools everywhere so we can pick based on convenience and not feel guilty.
From my family, my wife and I took equal parenting very seriously, and so we both sacrificed either personal time or work success at various points. Our extended family are in Australia, so we were entirely reliant on each other and external support.
How did you access these resources?
I proactively looked into opportunities and also used a wide support network (see other questions).
How did you benefit professionally from your solution to integrate life and work (e.g. increased motivation / creativity / focus)?
When I delegated work tasks to senior people in my laboratory, they stepped up to a much higher level than I expected, and things were soon being done better than I had been doing! When you give the right person responsibility you can be very pleasantly surprised, and they also get an opportunity to grow that they otherwise might not have.
How has the implementation of a good WLB changed the way you lead your team?
I have learnt to delegate and give more autonomy to staff.
How have your decisions for achieving WLB impacted on your career progression?
In the short term, it has probably been mildly negative. There are certainly meetings I should have attended that I didn’t, dinner that would have been good for my career that I skipped, grants I might have got that I didn’t right. On the other hand, I kept up all the really important career goals, so my career has been advancing better than I could have asked for.
Which recommendations regarding WLB would you give to young researchers pursuing a career in science?
See questions above.
The Babraham Institute.