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Press Start: Lead an Empowered Life as a Clinical Laboratorian

Work Smarter Not Harder or Longer

Published August 29, 2016 2:10 PM by Glen McDaniel

 There is always so much to be done. Today's society is so fast-moving that it’s hard to accomplish every single thing on a day’s agenda. Working in the laboratory, we know that emergencies happen, stats keep coming in, instruments act up, and colleagues call out. It’s agreed we are expected to do more and more with less and less.


One of my jobs outside the laboratory was as the COO of a hospital. We were evaluated on several formal metrics but one informal metric for COOs was always how much time we spent in our respective hospitals. We were not only expected to be visible but to come in early and leave late. Consistently. Because it was such an expectation, peer pressure also cemented this practice. COOs actually fell into the trap of judging each other's work ethic by hours worked.


One of the most popular phrases (almost a boast) is that we are multitasking. Recent studies have shown however that multitasking is not only exhausting mentally, but might make us less productive than we have been led to believe.  Paul Atchley, PhD, Associate Professor of Cognitive Psychology at University of Kansas has studied this issue extensively.

His research finds that when you multitask you are less productive, accomplish less and are more likely to miss vital information. He found it takes an average of 15 minutes to reorient to a primary task after being involved with a secondary (possibly less important) task. Think of the implications of that finding for a science as critical and exact as laboratory science.


Several authorities and studies not only argue against multitasking, but go further to stress the importance of what some call “single tasking."

Then there is the whole idea of working longer hours either to make more money or to accomplish all we have on our plate. However work-life balance is important.  Both work and social/family life suffer from working too many hours.


My friends in Europe who routinely receive 6 weeks’ vacation and multiple holidays and casual days off cannot understand the American penchant for working so much.


Studies at various universities have demonstrated that routinely working more than 40 hours a week is counterproductive. The individual who makes that a way of life can become chronically tired and is, in fact,  accomplishing much less (quality) work than they think.


Having work-life balance is important for employees of any age but a recent study has even found that the ideal work week for those over 40 is actually (wait for it…) 3 days.


We know that in a clinical laboratory we cannot work in a merely linear fashion. Life happens. Several priorities present them selves at once. However we can learn to work smarter. We should prioritize work; use technological tools available and organize work teams where we share tasks instead of one person assuming all steps of a particular function.


We need to refresh and take more frequent breaks, even for a few minutes throughout the day. Stand up, stretch, go to the breakroom, look out the window, and even go outdoors, if you can. This needs to be the standard rather than the exception. Rather than making you less productive, such “recesses” will refresh you, cause you to refocus and cause your productivity to skyrocket.


As the profession ages, we might be able to retain- or attract back into part time work- those of retirement age. However they will not be interested in working 40 hour plus work weeks.


We do ourselves, our employers, our patients and our families a disservice by multitasking and chronically working long hours and too many hours per week.


Good article. As scientists and physicians we pride ourselves on being able to have the ability to handle many complex issues at once. This made me think. In reality we can give superficial attention to many things at once. However to be fully engaged and to give our best we need to focus more. What's more we should not be embarrassed or reluctant to say we have too much on our plate. Quality and patient care suffer if we spread ourselves too thin

Jonah Ginsberg, Pathologist February 16, 2018 8:15 PM
New York NY

Very good article.

I share the same concerns as already stated. Being in the laboratory for 45 years I've seen the changes, both positive and negative.

As a young tech, most days we enjoyed coffee breaks and lunch breaks.  Today, as a section supervisor, I over see the daily running of the my section, pull a bench, train new techs, attend meetings, write procedures, etc. There's never enough time, I do make lunch a priority and try to go outside weather permitting.

The lab staff is aging. No longer do we have several new graduates applying for positions. Finding qualified help is a challenge. I don't see multitasking going away anytime soon.

Yes, I'm tired as well and left conflicted. I love my work, but would love to reduce my hours.

Carol, Microbiology - Supervisor October 29, 2016 11:40 AM
Milford CT

I wish my company would take this approach. Unfortunately we are told that they pay us so they don't care how many hours in the day we have to work to get it done. There are only two of us med techs here and it can be very overwhelming as we have to run everything. We process the samples, run hem, chem, coag and urines all at the same time plus have to find time for differentials and releasing of resutls. There is no focusing on one task for us.

Melissa October 25, 2016 4:26 PM
Albuquerque NM

I am just rolling towards retirement. I am tired. At this rate I might need to work until I am 9- years old. However, there is no way I want to work 50 hour weeks. I don't even want 40 hour weeks. I might want to do 2 or 3 shifts a week only.

Employers would do well to work more with us and have us fit in where we can and where we feel comfortable. That way they can retain experienced laboratorians with a good work ethics. We are ALL more effective if we are well rested and happy. That situation works best for employees, employers, colleagues and patients.

More advanced companies try new staffing models to match employee's preferences.

Angela September 17, 2016 8:58 PM
Atlanta GA

I can totally buy that. As I get older I find that true in my personal and professional life. I don't have the luxury of doing one thing at a time, but I find I get more tired and I don't seem to do important things really well when my attention is split.

This is hard to admit for a workaholic but it's true.

One thing I fear is that as we have more and more staff shortages employers will push for each person to  do more. As you mentioned in the article they might reward those who push and punish those who want to pace themselves even if the latter is more productive.

Science is ever evolving and this (multitasking is actually bad for you) is one more thing we learn over time. We should embrace it and employ it, instead of fighting it.

Maria C, MLS August 31, 2016 3:00 PM
McAllen TX

Very interesting. I feel somewhat vindicated. I know I feel flustered and less effective if I am multitasking. But everyone keeps telling you to multitask and actually judge you if you don't.

I have seen mistakes made and technicians or scientists make the excuse they were doing too many things. The response is to tell them to concentrate and pay attention. It seems we should be saying practice differently. Do not multitasking or at least don't do so many things,at once

Good article.

James T. , MLS August 29, 2016 10:09 PM
Cooperstown NY

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