Dissatisfaction is a common theme these days, whether the speaker/writer is a postdoc, a student, a financial professional, a software engineer, a insert-what-you-will-here. Which begs the question why? Is it because as a generation we have had things relatively easy? The struggles that may have defined life in earlier times are certainly less relevant to our lives, but we have a different set of stresses to deal with. Some are unique to the growing phenomenon of immigration, or migration, some are a function of increasingly isolated living situations and more nuclear families, some are certainly due to the fact that the bar for success is higher these days, to list only a few.
The question then is to what extent should these stresses influence one's performance professionally?
An individual is only as effective as the the sum of the stresses they are under. Simply put, one's life influences one's work. Some are better at compartmentalizing than others, and the result is often that they are able to separate the stresses of not-work from those of work, what is often the key to professionalism. And, as I've said before, I believe that professionalism is absolutely essential, both to work well and to maintain a pleasant work environment. However, are there circumstances when the stresses so far outweigh one's wish or ability to remain professional? What then?
Some obvious examples (only for the purposes of illustration!) that come to mind are pregnancy, clinical depression, serious illness, the serious illness of a family member. Many women don't have any problem working as usual through a pregnancy, what of those that are cripplingly sick? Or have complications that require them to take a lot of time off? And depression? Depression has degrees, and there are degrees of depression that are paralyzing, what then? If a colleague is seriously ill, its easy to see a way to be understanding, what if its a parent or grandparent? Is sympathy limited then?
For that is what it comes down to in the end, the ability to relate to someone's difficulties in a certain situation. It is much easier to make allowances for a colleague when one has been in a similar situation, and much harder to do so when one has not. Men, and many women, can be less than understanding about pregnancy related problems, and depression is such an amorphous thing that is is often quite difficult to feel for it, let alone understand it. Specific examples aside, what may not seem as stressful to an outside observer may be unbearably intense pressure to the person going through it. And it will, absolutely will, affect their work.
Some people have better coping mechanisms, for whatever reasons, physiological, emotional, mental or physical. It is inherently unfair that people who can cope better get less of a break, but that is the way it is. They need fewer allowances made for them, and often can be more professional in their approach to work, but they should not have that same expectation of everyone else. People are quick to perceive an inequality or an injustice, and are often justified in feeling put upon. But that does not necessarily mean that the people who seek more refuge from their stresses through less involvement in their work are doing so deliberately or as a means towards getting favours.
So my contention is that compassion is as essential a part of being professional as drive or discipline. No, one does not have to be friends with or confidantes of one's colleagues, but a little compassion for their troubles does not hurt. There are some stresses that do justify the loss of some professionalism. Burnt out late stage grad students, overloaded working parents, utterly demoralized postdocs, disorganized PIs who have lost control of their labs, all of these are real, if regrettable. It is hard, if even possible, to be patient with these people, especially if one hasn't been through these experiences personally. That is no reason not to try. And there will always be people who abuse compassion, with endless excuses and complaints, but is that reason not to be compassionate to anyone?