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Six Reasons You Need Good Visuals in Your Presentations

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I love Echo Rivera’s enthusiasm and humor towards communicating scientific results. I’m often asked to talk about why visuals are so powerful, and I reached out to Echo to get her take. I know you’ll enjoy her article. She even has a free starter pack with worksheets and templates just for you. — Ann


Friends! #VisualsAreMagic for effective research communication.

I’m not exaggerating. A great visual with a teeny tiny bit of text (as in, like, up to 5 words) will make your point better than a slide full of bullet points ever will.

There is nothing else that maximizes efficiency & effectiveness that well when it comes to getting your audience to pay attention, understand, remember, and use the information you share with them. Plus, it’s part of being an effective research communicator, which is good for your career.

My passion for the last 10 years has been about engaging, visual presentations. I’ve tested many different strategies, constantly tweaked my process, and read research articles/books (with lessons from the fields of cognitive science, graphic design, information design, psychology, and others).

Let me save you the trouble of spending all that time and energy, and share the basics of what you need to know.

Echo Rivera's flowchart showing that YES, you need visuals in your presentations.

 #1. Using Good Visuals Saves You Time

I know you’ve heard it before: A picture speaks 1,000 words.

Most of the time people say it to remind us that pictures help other people understand something quickly, at-a-glance. And, that’s true (and is the basis of reasons 2-4)

But let’s flip that around and think about what that means for the presentation creator (i.e., us).

Which sounds more time intensive: Dragging/dropping a picture -OR- typing out 1,000 words? Even compared to typing out 50 or 100 words, it’s easy to see that adding a picture saves you time compared to writing out a bunch of text.

And I can speak from experience. Once I created a good workflow and my own visual database, I’ve been able to take all the text/bullets from my presentation and turn it into to stunning visuals in minutes.

Seriously. MINUTES.

If you’re feeling like you already spend a lot of time on your presentations and you don’t believe that it could take less time, then it might be worth seeing if you’re spending time on ineffective strategies.

Echo Rivera's comic

#2. Visuals Help You Catch and Hold Your Audience’s Attention

It is soooo hard to get people’s attention these days. Just about everyone has a computer in their pocket or a tablet/laptop in their bag. With this escape at their fingertips, the second they’re bored, they’re going to do something else.

And the quickest way to make your audience bored? Throw a wall of text/bullet points up on the screen.

Hard truth time: While you may be tempted to give up and shout that you’re fighting a losing battle, that’s just the easy way out. It’s easy to blame others for why we feel we made less of an impact than we wanted (deficit model, anyone?)

It’s ultimately our responsibility to keep our audience engaged. Or, at least, do everything you can to keep them engaged. *Yes, ok, in the case of a required course you may have some students who really just don’t want to be there and nothing will work. But you can’t control that, and should still try to make your lectures as engaging as possible for other students.

What are things you can do to keep them engaged? Yup, visuals.

Our human brains prefer visuals over text, so use that to your advantage, and get a head start! Your audience will be more likely to look at your slide if you have a good visual on it than if you have text. And that’s step 1. If you struggle to get people to look at your slides, you’ll have a hard time getting them to understand and remember what you said.

#3. Visuals Help Your Audience Quickly Understand Your Material

If you ever find yourself saying, “I’m not going to read the slides to you…” then chances are you’ve just set your audience up for failure.

We already know that our brains process visuals much quicker than text. But, there is still a lot going on in our brains that can bog down our working memory. Our working memory is that space where we’re processing, thinking, and trying to fit that new bit of info into its new “home” in our brains.

It’s really easy for us to get overwhelmed in this space. Especially if there are distractions, we’re tired, or get confused. The quickest way to make your audience overwhelmed and confused? Speaking while you have a lot of text on your slides.

This is especially confusing when people say things that are different than what’s on the slide.  Think about what that means for your audience. I mean really think:

  • There you are with a bunch of text on the slides…but
  • You just told your audience that you aren’t going to read the text…so
  • That means they now have to read the slides,
  • AND try to pay attention to what you’re saying, which is different than what’s on the slides,
  • AND try to take notes or process the material enough so it can transition into long-term memory.

Friends, that’s almost impossible to do.

Remember: It’s your job to help your audience process information, on the spot, easily and quickly. That’s why using visuals is probably the most helpful thing you can do for your audience, and for you. Using more visuals is a win-win, because it also sets YOU up for success as an effective communicator. The more you use (good) visuals, the less likely you’ll find yourself doing what I just described.

#4. Visuals Help Push New Information into Long-Term Memory

This one is closely tied to #3 (working memory), so I’m not really going to go into much detail.

Research shows that the combination of a great visual + a teeny tiny bit of text (around 5 words) increases the chances of information making it to long-term memory. Text/bullet points are pretty bad at this task.

So, again, you increase the chance of your audience’s success by using great visuals and limited text.

#5. Visuals Are More Likely (than Bullet Points) to Resonate with and Inspire People to Act

I am most interested in research/evaluation/teaching that has a goal to increase social equity. I want my work to contribute to positive social change, and I like to work with people who share that same value.

For those of us who care about such things, we care deeply that our work has a positive impact and inspires people to act. Building on what we’ve already talked about, chances are you’re giving a presentation for a reason. Hopefully, that reason is you want your audience to use the information for some type of positive social change.

So, let me ask you this. How will your presentation inspire people to act if they:

  • didn’t even pay attention?
  • were confused by what you said?
  • misunderstood what you said?
  • forget the info a week later?
  • didn’t enjoy the experience and were bored and uninspired?
  • You already know the answer: It won’t.

But great visuals? Great visuals have the power not only to meet all the goals we’ve already talked about (getting people to pay attention, understand, and remember), but they have the power to move people.

Watch a few TED talks and you’ll see what I mean. Most TED talks are brief, superficial, and lack substance. BUT… the visuals and passion coming from the speakers will move and inspire in ways you probably didn’t expect. Hans Rosling has some great dataviz ones, so I’d recommend to watch his first.

#6. Using Good Visuals Makes You an Effective Communicator, Which is Good For Your Career

While right now the tenure system doesn’t specifically value effective research communication, there is a push to change that culture. If you’re paying attention, you’ll easily see the momentum forming in the natural, physical, and social sciences for researchers to do better at research communication.

Researchers, academics, scientists, and evaluators are on Twitter (including me: @echoechoR) and have blogs where they talk about their work. Our goal is to be better communicators and help make research more accessible to a broader audience.

That’s why I encourage everyone to jump on board and join this growing movement of effective science communicators (#scicomm).

But even before that cultural shift happens, if you communicate research effectively (which includes using good visuals), then any or all of these could happen:

  • You will become a more effective speaker
  • You will have more time to spend on your writing or research, while also increasing the quality of your presentations
  • Your presentations will be more memorable
  • Your students or audience will have a better understanding of your material
  • You will spend less time answering basic questions, and more time having thoughtful discussions
  • Your audience will have a positive experience with your presentation
  • You will come across as more approachable/accessible to your audience

I’m not just guessing at these, either. I have personally experienced these benefits as a direct result of using high quality visuals in my presentations. That’s because using quality visuals does more for you than just “prettying up” your slides. But alas, that is perhaps a post for another day!

So…Should You Use Visuals?

The answer is Yes.

For more tips on how to create better presentations, check out my FREE starter kit. My starter kit comes with information design strategies, a workflow checklist, a ppt file to help you create your own slide design, and a storyboarding worksheet.


Echo Rivera's headshotHi! I’m Dr. Echo Rivera, owner of Creative Research Communications, LLC via My passion is helping researchers, academics, scientists, and evaluators become effective visual communicators. I love training folks on how to create astronomically awesome slide presentations for lectures, conferences, and workshops. I also love to draw comics and want to see more comics used in research, evaluation, and teaching. I’d love to connect with you on Twitter, YouTube, or in my Facebook group, the Creative Research Communicators Network.

Twitter: @echoechoR
YouTube: Channel Link


To learn even more from Echo, check out her free starter kit:

Echo Rivera's free starter kit.

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12 days ago
Some ideas for our #nasig18 presenters, perhaps?
Richmond, VA
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Can Major League Baseball Legally Exclude a Woman?

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Today is Stacy Piagno‘s birthday. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Piagno has made some history over the last couple years, becoming (along with outfielder Kelsie Whitmore) not only the first woman to appear on a professional roster in over half a century, but also the first to win a game as a pitcher in roughly that same period of time.

Nor were Piagno’s appearances the product of a mere promotional stunt. After debuting in 2016 for the Sonoma Stompers of the independent Pacific Association, she returned to the team last year, posting a 4.20 ERA, including seven innings of one-run ball against an all-male lineup in a July 15 victory. (The Stompers, you may recall, were the subject of the excellent book The Only Rule is It Has to Work by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller.) The Stompers have sent several players to more advanced leagues, including to affiliated ball. Succeeding in that context isn’t a negligible feat.

Piagno and Whitmore (who’s not even 20 yet) are hardly the only women to distinguish themselves on the field against men. The Negro Leagues, which hosted some of the greatest players of all time (Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige) and which, by some estimates, featured a talent level roughly equivalent to that found in the NPB, also had a number of female players right alongside the men. Toni Stone hit .243, played a competent second base, and is most known for recording her team’s only hit in a game against Satchel Paige. Mamie Johnson posted a 33-8 record and a .276 batting average. (I recognize that pitcher record and batting average aren’t ideal stats, but advanced metrics aren’t really available for a lot of Negro League players.) So there is at least some precedent for women playing capably at a relatively high level.

And there’s more recent history, too. Ila Borders threw over 100 innings across four independent-league seasons between 1997 and 2000. Knuckleballer Chelsea Baker, who dominated her high school (boys’) baseball league, threw batting practice to the Tampa Bay Rays in 2014. And fellow knuckleballer Eri Yoshida held her own across both Japan and North America. There is also a National Women’s Baseball Team and the Japan Women’s Baseball League, and a Women’s baseball world cup.

The issue of women in baseball has already been addressed by writers far better than I. I’m not here to re-cover that ground. I’ve cited women’s history in the game, though, simply to establish both that women have exhibited both (a) a desire and (b) sufficient skill to play it professionally. (More on that latter point below.) What I’d like to do here is address the possibility that women have been excluded from the game — both as players and umpires — for reasons other than merit. And while I’m not the first to write about this, I’d like to take the opportunity of Piagno’s birthday to propose a legal theory by which women could potentially play affiliated baseball.

Technically, there’s no current rule banning women from playing or umpiring. In 1952, Major League Baseball actually did ban women from playing for any major-league or affiliated minor-league team.  The ban was withdrawn 40 years later, and Melissa Mayeux became the first woman on MLB’s international registration list. But here we are, in 2018, and there will be no women on any MLB baseball field this year. Not in the majors, not in the minors. Not as players, not as coaches, and not as umpires. [Edit: thanks to commenter Wishy2 for pointing out my inadvertent omission of the only female minor league umpire, Jen Pawol, currently working in the short-season Penn League.] And not for lack of trying, either: as late as 2007, there’s evidence that male umpires were colluding to keep Ria Cortesio from becoming a major-league umpire.

The applicable law here is Section 2000e-2 of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which specifically states that “It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer

(1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or

(2) to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

What that means is that an employer can’t refuse to hire a woman simply because she’s a woman.  There’s also the case of United States v. Virginia, where the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Virginia Military Academy couldn’t refuse to consider women as candidates so long as it was possible that some women met the physical qualifications for entry.

Generally, people who argue that teams are allowed to hire only male players point to something called a bona fide occupational qualification (“BFOQ”). A BFOQ is a very long and obscure way of saying that an employer is allowed to exclude people on the basis of criteria like gender if being a specific gender is required to do the job. For example, if Hanes needed a male model for its underwear, they’re legally allowed to look for men only to fill that role. Race, it should be noted, can never be a BFOQ.

We know, for example, under a 1971 case called New York State Division of Human Rights v. New York-Pennsylvania Professional Baseball League, that being male is not a BFOQ for being an umpire, which means an umpiring candidate cannot be turned away because of her gender. In fact, 10 years ago, an all-female crew umpired an exhibition game between the Mets and Michigan Wolverines. So any collusion against Cortesio was almost certainly illegal, particularly because Cortesio was a good prospect, umpiring both a major-league spring training game and the Futures Game. If a woman wants to be an umpire, baseball can’t legally refuse to hire or promote her because she’s a woman.

So now the question is whether being male is a BFOQ for playing professional baseball.

There is, on average, a disparity in strength between men and women. According to this excellent research by Bradley Woodrum, the difference in talent between male and female athletes is about 10%. That’s actually pretty sizable: a 90 mph fastball becomes an 81 mph fastball. So the question we’re addressing is whether that 10% difference is enough to make being male a BFOQ for a baseball player. And that depends on whether there are women who are talented enough to play.

Let me emphasize that final sentence for sake of clarity: at the moment, there are no women playing professionally at any level of affiliated baseball. Not Triple-A, not Double-A, not in the Rookie-level Arizona League. All told, there are roughly 6,500 players throughout the minors and majors combined and none of them are women. It seems improbable that not even a small percentage of women could outplay all of those 6,500 male players.

To go beyond probability and find the reality of the situation, I spoke with Hardball Times writer Jen Mac Ramos. I’m a decent enough lawyer, but my scouting abilities leave much to be desired. Ramos, on the the hand, has already conducted groundbreaking research which found that women are fully capable of playing catcher in affiliated baseball leagues. That’s because, according to Ramos’s research, the offensive bar for catchers is lower, and catcher defense — specifically pitch-framing — isn’t something men do better than women. Ramos also told me that their research shows that women could be good middle infielders in the mold of David Eckstein and Jose Altuve, who excelled despite smaller frames. And Ramos explained that female pitchers already exist who could get by in the pros throwing 83-85 mph, pointing to Jamie Moyer and Jered Weaver as examples.

Most importantly, Ramos told me that women players and women’s leagues simply aren’t scouted by MLB teams, largely due to a structural belief in front offices that they aren’t good enough. Simply put, explained Ramos, “these women don’t even come close to a lot of front offices’ radars.” But Ramos was emphatic when I asked them whether there are women players good enough today to play affiliated baseball, at least in the minor leagues. “Yes,” they said.

I also spoke to Kazuto Yamazaki, an NPB specialist and writer for Pitch Info and Beyond the Box Score. Yamazaki told me that there are players in the Japan Women’s Baseball League who “could thrive in the Pacific Association or the [Frontier League].” The Frontier League, it should be noted, is estimated by some equivalent to Low-A ball. He did say, though, that JWBL players would likely have difficulty with velocity at higher levels.

Given this evidence, it seems remarkable that MLB appears not to scout women at all. And that, in and of itself, may not be legal under Title VII, because MLB is basically excluding an entire population from consideration solely on the basis of their gender.

That’s not to say that a lawsuit by a female player against MLB would be without problems. First, minor leaguers aren’t technically employees for wage purposes under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and thus there would be a plausible argument they aren’t employees under Title VII either. But that might not be an insurmountable obstacle because the carve-out for recreational workers in the FLSA that applies to minor-league wages is specific to just that and isn’t present in Title VII. The Supreme Court tells us in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius that where Congress uses different statutory language, it’s presumed that Congress did so on purpose. In fact, in a case called Moran v. Selig, the court applied Title VII to a case filed by a former player against Major League Baseball (even though he eventually lost on the merits).

Then there is the legislative history of Title VII, which actually mentions some legislators suggesting an all-male baseball team as an example of something permitted by Title VII. However, that kind of legislative history is not dispositive. That’s because the language of the statute is considered to be the primary indicator of the intent of the legislature and the use of legislative history is, shall we say, controversial. The language of Title VII desn’t have language which, on its face, would exclude baseball teams.

There’s also MLB’s defense to the recent lawsuits by minor leaguers over wages. Rob Manfred has, in response to that suit, said that baseball considers minor leaguers to be serving “apprenticeships.” But EEOC v. Seafarers International Union established that apprentices are employees for the purpose of statutes like the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), and the same reasoning could be applied to Title VII.

You’d also have to have a plaintiff who is talented enough, because MLB might reasonably say that they won’t scout players who they think will top out at Low-A ball. Players in foreign leagues would probably not have standing to sue under Title VII at all. All of which indicates that this wouldn’t be an easy case.

Nevertheless, with all that said, I think there is a real possibility that, if a female player were to bring a Title VII class action against MLB, she’d have a viable case.

Special thanks to Jen Mac Ramos and Kazuto Yamazaki for their help.

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12 days ago
If you're not even scouting women....
Richmond, VA
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The Importance of Research Ethics

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Erin Richter-Weikum is an Online Librarian at American Public University System and she lives in San Francisco.

I have been working in academic libraries for over five years now. The first two years coincided with my getting my MLIS, and the next three were spent juggling two part-time academic library jobs while working on my second master’s in Research Methods and Statistics (RMS). It was while working on my second Master’s degree, not my MLIS, that I learned how to effectively conduct research on my own.

“…it is my responsibility to protect my participants’ right to privacy regarding any information I collect during my research, whether it be first-hand interviews or secondary data.”

One of the most important classes I took while in my RMS program was Research Ethics. In this class we discussed different ethical dilemmas that researchers face. We covered the philosophical, such as the trolley problem, but we also discussed real ethical conundrums researchers have come across and discussed different ways we could approach those problems. My biggest takeaway from the course was the importance of thinking about the people involved in any research project. I recognized that it is my responsibility to protect my participants’ right to privacy regarding any information I collect during my research, whether it be first-hand interviews or secondary data. This is where IRB comes in.

IRB: What is it and why should I care?

The Institutional Review Board (IRB), also sometimes referred to as the Ethics Review Committee, is a group of people who review a proposed research project to ensure ethical conduct of research.

“If you are using data that can identify an individual, or identifiable data, then it is considered “human subjects research” and you must submit for IRB review.”

IRB is the committee that review your research project before you are allowed to begin collecting data and working with human participants. IRB review is required if you plan to use human participants for your research project. If your research involves qualitative or mixed methods research, chances are you will be required to submit your research project for IRB approval. For quantitative research it will depend on the data that you are using. If you are using data that can identify an individual, or identifiable data, then it is considered “human subjects research” and you must submit for IRB review. If you’re not sure, I would recommend contacting your IRB office and asking; it’s better to take the extra step up front rather than making an assumption that could lead to a rejection. This leads to my final reason that you should care about IRB review: IRB approval is critical if you plan to publish the results of your research. If you are going to be putting in all of this time and effort, chances are that you want to publish or present your results to others. In order to do this you’ll need to make sure you followed all of the proper protocols, including obtaining IRB approval, otherwise your research practices, research ethics, and results may come into question. That’s doubt you just don’t need in your life.

I have gone through IRB twice at two separate Universities within the past year for a single research project. I had to submit IRB with the University of Denver, where I was going to school, and then I had to submit IRB again with the University where I intended to conduct my research. If this sounds confusing, that’s because it was. The important thing to take away is that I’ve gone through IRB with two separate schools and had to fill out two entirely different forms for submission and had very different experiences at these institutions.

IRB Approval Process

This process will be different for everybody since there are a plethora of factors that will contribute to how the process will look for you, but I wanted to provide a general outline of what the IRB process may look like so you’ll have some idea:

  1. Think about your research project. Envision every aspect of it and how you will complete all of those steps and ask yourself a lot of questions. What methodology will you use? How will you select participants? How will you collect data? Will you be conducting interviews/focus groups or distributing surveys? Will you be recording your interviews? How will you be managing your data? It helps to write it all down in some way just for you so that you can begin to visualize how all the components fit together.
  2. Organize. Now that you’ve written down what you need to do, organize your research process into steps to help you get started.
  3. Contact. Is there anyone else you would like to work with on your project? Are there any offices or organizations you would like to work with? You can begin to feel out potential partnerships and alliances early. This is also a good time to reach out to anyone, including the IRB, with questions you have about your research.
  4. Full, Expedited, or Exempt. Check to see if you are eligible for expedited or exempt review. If you do not qualify for either of these you will need to undergo full board review.
  5. Fill out appropriate IRB forms. There should be a checklist that will include which forms you need to fill out and which additional documents you need to attach, such as the recruitment email or the survey questions. If you wrote down all of your research points already (as 1 and 2 suggested) this will be much quicker.
  6. Complete CITI Certification. The CITI program is an online training program designed to educate faculty and students about ethics surrounding human subjects research. The information about CITI training, including which modules to complete, should be available through your school’s IRB website or office.
  7. Double check you filled out and attached all of the correct IRB forms.
  8. Submit your IRB Packet.
  9. Wait… Your school’s IRB website should include how often the IRB committee meets so that you’ll have some idea of how long it will take before hearing back. For my first school, I had to wait three months before I heard that my research project was approved. The second school only took three weeks.
  10. Celebrate! You’ve just been approved to move forward with your research!  What are you waiting for, get started! If you need to wait to get started on your research, make sure to check how long your IRB approval is valid for since this will affect how long you can hold onto your data.

Takeaways From My Experience

It was very important that I had my entire research project planned out and well thought through before filling out and submitting the IRB forms. This included having my research narrative, my methodology, how I would be collecting, managing, storing, saving, and sharing my data (for both qualitative and quantitative data since this was for a mixed methods research project), who would have access to my data, my recruitment email and interview questions, and my completed survey. It’s important to have every part of the research project thought out and planned before submission because once you receive approval you can begin collecting data immediately.

“It was very important that I had my entire research project planned out and well thought through before filling out and submitting the IRB forms.”

Every school is different and prioritizes working with new researchers in different ways; it is always important to reach out to either the IRB or Institutional Research office first when beginning to put together the parts of your research project. My own experience showed me that one IRB office was very helpful, and the other one was… less than helpful. If you have an IRB office that is fantastic, then awesome!  You’re off to a great start!  Research tends to be collaborative and having a supportive presence in the IRB or IR office can make a huge difference.

If, on the other hand, your IRB office is less than helpful, don’t feel discouraged!  The best advice I can offer is to speak with others who have submitted their research for IRB review at your institution and ask about their experiences or for advice. You may have a colleague who can help guide you through which forms to fill out or provide feedback if you feel comfortable letting them read through your research narrative. Librarians are helpful and wonderful people!  Don’t be afraid to ask for advice in blogs, forums, or social media if you can’t turn to your colleagues for advice.

(Hopefully) Helpful Advice

  • Not every research project is going to require IRB!  Check with the IRB office first to ask if your research project is going to require review.
  • IRB is going to be different at every institution, so be sure to check what the requirements are.
  • There are special restrictions for working with vulnerable populations. Vulnerable populations include children, pregnant women, and prisoners. You should check with your IRB office for more information about which groups of people they classify as vulnerable populations.
  • Check to see if you are eligible for expedited or exempt review. If you do not qualify for either of these you will need to undergo full board review.
  • It can be challenging and sometimes frustrating to fill out all of the proper documents, but it is important to be as thorough as possible when filling it out so that you give yourself the best chance of passing review the first time around.
  • Ask for advice from anyone you know who has gone through IRB. I have been approached by multiple colleagues and classmates who have asked for advice about how to complete an IRB form for the first time. I am more than happy to sit down and talk through which forms to fill out and whom else it would be useful to talk to before submitting the IRB review forms.
  • Remember, the purpose of IRB is to protect everyone involved. Think about how your research can impact others and always think of your participants safety and anonymity first.

References & Further Reading


Thomson, J. J. (1985). The trolley problem. The Yale Law Journal. Retrieved from:

University of California, Irvine Office of Research. (n.d.). Levels of review. Retrieved from:

University of Virginia IRB Office. (n.d.) Vulnerable populations list. Retrieved from:

Featured image [CC0], via Pexels. 

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20 days ago
And, if you're sending out a survey to your professional community for some research project you're working on, make it clear that you've gone through the IRB process and how you're going to protect the identity of those who respond to the survey.
Richmond, VA
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4 Comments and 13 Shares
[They do not move.]
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20 days ago
This is me at every professional networking event or mixed friend group party.
Richmond, VA
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3 public comments
20 days ago
Stop reading my mind.... um. Is it bad that this is an aspirational goal?
Sydney, Australia
20 days ago
How will our heroes get out of this one? Will they ever say anything else? Will they walk away? Find out next time, on DRAGON BALL Z.
Moses Lake, WA
20 days ago
[They do not move.]

Problems with workplace wellness plans: where do I start?

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A couple of weeks ago, a big study on the effects of workplace wellness programs came out, and the news was not good (for promoters of those programs).  Researchers from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign designed a large randomized controlled study to test whether workplace wellness programs would result in things like more trips to the gym, lowered healthcare spending, and 37 other potential positive outcomes.  They came up with nothing. nada. zilch. zippo.

A zero with a line through it.
A zero with a line through it.

Co-author David Molitor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was quoted here as saying, “across 39 different outcomes that we looked at, we found zeroes — and fairly precise zeroes — on almost all outcomes,” including health spending.

He noted two exceptions: Workers who joined the wellness program did become likelier to be screened for health issues, and to say they thought their employer put a high priority on employee health.

You may be wondering:  what exactly are workplace wellness plans?  They’re employer-sponsored programs for employees like smoking cessation programs, blood pressure screening, and also exercise promotions like running or walking programs, Fitbit or pedometer promotions and competitions, gym membership or yoga benefits,  flextime offerings for exercise during the workday, etc.

This seems like a good idea, right?  Encouraging and maybe even paying employees to exercise, get screened for disease risk factors, connect with other workers to form fun movement groups– how could it not work?  Don’t you think you’d be healthier if your bosses set aside time for you to do side planks at work with your colleagues?

Mostly smiling women doing side planks in work clothes in an office.
Mostly smiling women doing side planks in work clothes in an office.

This is part of the problem.  Wellness programs don’t necessarily take into account what it takes for someone to be able to manage both work and working out under workplace time constraints.  A commenter for the article said this:

One problem at my work is they’ll let you take an hour, three times a week, but you cannot put that hour right before you leave, you have to report back to your desk from the gym before you leave the building….It takes too much work for me to change, get sweaty, take a shower that includes washing my hair, drying my hair, and re-applying make up all so that I can go back and sit at my desk for 10 minutes….Out of the 60 minutes I’m allowed, I’m lucky if a full 30 is actual exercise.

In this case, the constraints of the program didn’t work for her (and possibly not for lots of women, especially ones who are required to look and dress a certain way in their offices).

In addition, if companies encourage or expect their employees to engage in so-called health promotion activities, they should realize that these activities place an extra burden on workers in terms of time, scheduling, logistics, other resources (e.g. special clothing, time for cleanup, food and hydration, warm-up and cool-down periods).  It’s important to acknowledge work reality:  most employees are required to do more in less time, often for less money and fewer benefits (this is true for my job as a professor as well).  Responding to the expected stresses and illness that come out of such an atmosphere by handing out Fitbits is not going to do the trick.  Another commenter put it this way:

I have experience with a company that removed yearly bonuses, fun company paid events… and weekly paid lunches. Then they piled on so much work that break times became unpractical and overtime became expected. When turnover skyrocketed, they started a Stress Relief Team to come up with ideas like: plant a community garden and map out a walking path around the parking lot. Needless to say, none of this worked because it failed to address the issue of overworked employees…

Then there’s the worry that actually participating in the wellness program will get you in trouble with management because of the ever-expanding workday.  Here’s what another commenter said:

It’s one thing for companies to tout work-life balance, provide wellness programming of various types, and monetarily incentivize them to participate. In reality, when management is squeezed for results, scheduling early morning a/o lunch meetings is the norm, and your peers are wondering how does so-and-so have time to fit in a workout during their day…….participation in these programs is stymied.

If you want to read more about criticisms of workplace wellness programs, I recommend this Slate article, which is a data-packed scathing indictment of them.

The Illinois Workplace Wellness Study is a multi-year project, and their current results (of zero effectiveness!)  are after year one.  They’ll be continuing to gather and analyze data, including biometric and more survey data.  All this is important.

But as a feminist, a researcher with a soft spot for qualitative data, and an often-harried employee myself, I wish that the study would include this:  asking people what they think they need, and then (in the name of science), giving it to them.  And seeing what happens.

Just a thought.

Text saying "crazy idea".


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22 days ago
I shared the study with our workplace wellness coordinator, and she hadn't heard about it yet.
Richmond, VA
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