Special Issue - How accepting vulnerability helped redefine my work-life balance

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Realizing that ‘being vulnerable does not lessen one’s professionalism or value as a scientist’ has been key in shifting my mindset and achieving a balanced academic and personal life.

Maria Koumouri
Maria Koumouri

Bionote:

Maria was born in Cyprus. By the age of 18, she moved to the UK where she obtained her B.Sc. in Biomedical Sciences and her M.Sc. in Immunology and Inflammatory diseases from the University of Manchester and University of Glasgow, respectively. Apart from her research experience in Academia, she was employed by Q2 Solutions-Clinical Laboratory Services Provider, in Edinburgh. Maria has always been eager to develop professionally. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Cyprus. Maria is very interested in science communication and outreach and is a board member of the nonprofit organization Greek Women in STEM.

I have always been a meticulous and high-performing student. This did not stem from my desire to receive awards and recognition, but from a genuine interest and passion for the topic of study. Although I could successfully keep my work concerns at a safe distance from my personal life and vice versa (supposing that this was the best way to maintain a healthy work-life balance), this changed tremendously during my PhD.

Attaining a healthy work-life balance was challenging, not only because of long working hours and pressure to perform well, but also due to an inability to exclude personal life from day-to-day PhD work routine. At some point, accumulated feelings of stress started taking their toll on my mental and physical health. My motivation to work or socialize with friends dropped dramatically, which was an alarming sign for me. Inspired by a friend’s example, I asked for help and started therapy. In one of our sessions, my therapist said, “You are human, you got tired of pushing through all this time, and it is okay.” After several health check-ups and confirming that my physical symptoms were due to anxiety, I decided to take matters into my own hands. In the midst of a busy working period, I decided to ask for a break of one week. I shared my concerns about the situation with my supervisor and I, luckily enough, received a compassionate response. The only thing I did during that week was to spend some quality time with loved ones, including myself. This break eventually created the space I needed to relax, reflect, and re-define my mindset about my work-life balance.

Bend so you don't break
Bend so you don't break

The brief break from the high-pressure environment helped me rediscover my motivation. I realized that being vulnerable and open about my feelings was not an indication of weakness but of strength. The fact is, there are no ‘bad’ or ‘good’ emotions. Instead of categorizing my emotions, I listened to them carefully. For me, stress meant that I needed to take a break to relax. Fear meant that I needed to learn to trust myself and my judgment in tackling issues. Anger meant that if I did not enjoy being in a certain situation and that if the situation did not change, I could change my attitude towards it. I realized that my PhD and my life could not be separated and that I had to find a balance; where experiences of one fueled the other, and together, they could foster my growth.

I no longer feel guilty about responding to emails only during working hours. I feel relieved that I do not need to overwork for weeks to deserve a couple of days off. Taking breaks is not a reward but a prerequisite for an individual of any profession to stay healthy and creative. I am at peace with the fact that some days my productivity is low due to personal struggles, and I do not apologize for it in the fear of being considered less professional.

I am fortunate enough to have a supportive network of family and friends who believe in me and understand my needs without doubting my abilities and potential. But what about the role of our workplace, ‘Academia’, in such a challenging situation? Throughout my career, I have heard many stories like mine from fellow scientists. Surprisingly, many share their experience with shame and behind closed doors. In contrast, others proudly boast about their long hours of work and lack of social life, without realizing that they reinforce an old-fashioned and toxic work culture while reflecting their traumatic experiences to others. It should not be normalized to accept unhealthy working habits at the expense of our well-being and base our self-worth on working hours and the progress of research projects.

Image by Adobe Firefly
Image by Adobe Firefly

Academic institutions should assign a personal counselor to PhD students and supervisors with whom they will feel safe to speak out and share their worries. People in senior positions should encourage their team to participate in extracurricular activities (and get out of their bubble) to fulfill their personal needs. Importantly though, each of us should comprehend why it is vital to have this balance in the first place and what are the perceptions (and prejudices) behind our actions when losing this balance.

As young scientists, it is our responsibility to speak up and change the things that do not serve our generation’s needs anymore. Taking that first step by sharing our story with pride may be a good start!

Maria Koumouri
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Cyprus
mkoumouri25@gmail.com

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