In Celebration of the NLM Workforce on Labor Day

Labor Day blog post. NLM employees on the screen of a large monitor on a desk.

Since its inception in 1882, Labor Day has served many purposes in the United States. Celebrated on the first Monday in September, this observance is a creation of the labor movement and dedicated to recognizing the contributions and achievements of American workers. Over time, Labor Day weekend has become a symbol of the unofficial end of summer, the last hurrah before the beginning of the school year, the switch point from summer to fall sports, and even a day for major sales in stores around the country.

To me, as director of NLM, Labor Day signifies a time to express my gratitude for the efforts of the 1,700 people who work at the Library. We count among our workforce scientists and scholars, librarians and lawyers, biologists and budget specialists, trainees and volunteers, and a host of physical plant staff who manage our buildings and grounds. I am constantly in awe of the contribution each person makes that — taken together — transforms data into knowledge and knowledge into health.

NLM employees listening to a lecture in the Lister Hill Auditorium.
Recollecting days of gatherings at the Lister Hill Auditorium.

But as I pause to reflect on and celebrate the contributions of our talented NLM staff members, I would be remiss to overlook the unusual circumstances befalling our workforce during this time of COVID-19.

As one of the 27 Institutes and Centers at NIH, NLM continues to prioritize employees’ health. Since mid-March, most of our staff have been working remotely as we follow guidance for a maximum telework environment. I am beyond grateful for the handful of staff who continue to work on-site to ensure that our data centers keep running and building operations continue. I’ve noticed an exceptional amount of resilience and ingenuity among our staff — both on-site and remote workers — as they continue to deliver the services and products that are unique to NLM and continue to support research in biomedical and health data science.

So, this year on Labor Day, I want to highlight and commend the continued creativity of NLM staff.

Usually, much of our work is done in teams that hold regular, face-to-face meetings, and, in fact, these meetings are still happening — just by video chat. The daily huddles used by our Library Operations supervisors continue, now supported by new technologies. The brief personal check-ins that started many meetings also continue, but we must rely on verbal cues rather than visual ones when sitting down next to a colleague. Where we once came to recognize a colleague’s favorite shirt or special suit, we now glimpse the backdrops of family rooms and home offices. And some of our work colleagues joining each other on Friday evenings for virtual happy hours take advantage of customizable backgrounds to express an interest that colleagues might not have known about!

The rhythm of our work has also changed. We’ve lost the exercise and mental breaks that come from walking to that next meeting — or even the ability to have a walking meeting. (Although I hear that some of our colleagues take meetings while walking around their neighborhood to get their steps in!) The natural respite that comes with the need to move from place to place has disappeared, and some staff report spending their days in back-to-back video conferences instead. Through technology, we’ve been able to replicate the “Got a second for a question?” pattern in an effective, though somewhat less satisfactory, way.

Taking annual leave is different now, too. While it has always been challenging to schedule and prioritize time away, it is no less important now to find time to disconnect from work to rest and refresh.

Please join with me in celebrating the efforts of NLM staff on this Labor Day. Reach out to them, let them know you appreciate their labors, and remind them (and your own colleagues) of the importance of setting aside time to honor the achievements of workers around the nation!

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

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