March 27, 2018, by Simon Langley-Evans
Academic work-life balance: Can it be achieved
Sadly, academic life is not how we see it portrayed in film and television dramas. Academics do not spend their time drinking sherry in wood-paneled office suites, thinking deeply, occasionally having an intense tutorial with a solitary student and leaping out of bathtubs shouting ‘Eureka!’ The truth is that the modern academic has to juggle often-conflicting priorities of teaching, research and administration, working long hours. Many academics suffer from imposter syndrome and increasingly feel under pressure to deliver excellence in everything they do. We often see surveys that show low morale among the academic workforce, with reports of working in excess of 60 hours per week and unacceptably high levels of stress-related illness.
Working in academia is a vocation. It’s up there with working in healthcare, the armed forces or taking religious orders. Academics have to be, and are driven and committed individuals. They go the extra mile to do the things they love. They strive to help their students and feel compelled to make a difference to the world, either through the pursuit of their original research or through inspiring and educating young people. For many this comes at a cost as the scope of the job is so broad and the demands of the job are so high. Throughout the academic workforce morale is at an all-time low.
I am fortunate in that I have found my ideal way of working and maintaining a good quality of life outside my job. It has taken me a long time to get there though and for the first 20 years or so of my academic career I often put work ahead of other things and put myself (and consequently my family) under huge stress. The results included resignation from one academic post due to dissatisfaction with a high intensity environment, six years of anti-depressant therapy and a serious rethink of how I would approach my professional life. Personal low points in my work-life story would include standing in the sea on holiday holding my phone in the air in order to access email from work and picking up email from a student who wanted me to read their draft dissertation- on Christmas Day. I also must confess to responding to a call out to a failing minus 80 freezer, when my pregnant wife was in early labour. None of these things are events that I am proud of.
These days I am able to maintain a level of academic success and make a positive contribution to the life of the University, whilst at the same time avoiding work at weekends and long days. My typical working day starts at 8:15 and ends at 17:00 and then I do my best to lock my office door forget about it all. I never work at the weekend, apart from occasionally turning out for Open Days.
To get to this state I had to ask a couple of key questions of myself, and maybe these are things we should all consider:
- Do you want your work to define you or should it be just one part of what makes you a rounded individual?
- Do you live to work, or work to live?
We will all have different answers to these questions and some people will say that yes- they do want their work to define them and for their professional achievements to be their long-lasting legacy. Some academics are genuine high achievers- the top performers, but I would contend that; a) you can’t be at the top of your game if you are unhappy and; b) there is no point in being at the top if it doesn’t deliver personal happiness.
I’ve come the long way round, courting meltdown, and have reached a happy balance. Although my role now carries more responsibility and stress than anything that I have done before I am not letting it rule and ruin my life. The list below gives some idea of things I have taken on board to try and manage the difficult balance:
- Have rules and stick to them. These define what you will and won’t do in your working life. My rules set out my working hours and I also make sure I limit the amount of international travel that I agree to.
- Set plans and have goals for each and every day. If you don’t finish something on your list within the normal working day, go home and relax. Don’t feel guilty. You can pick up where you left off in the morning.
- Take care of yourself and stay healthy. Make sure that you take breaks and organize your diary well ahead so that you know when the holidays are coming. Use all of your holiday entitlement.
- Focus on what matters and say no to distractions. Don’t get bogged down in work that isn’t a high priority.
- Say NO to the macho culture that sneers at those who leave work at 5pm and considers a 60-hour week as a badge of honour. If it isn’t for you, then that’s absolutely fine.
- Use support networks. Make sure that you have someone at work who you can confide in when it all gets too much.
- Don’t carry the world on your shoulders. Yes, we have TEF and REF and NSS and all the other stuff to deal with, but these are team concerns. What you do or don’t do as an individual probably isn’t going to make an awful lot of difference to any of those measures. Going home to your family is not going to wreck the University’s chance of hitting its key performance indicators. And if it does, that’s a problem for University managers, not you.
- Learn how to say ‘No’. Make sure that you target the work that really matters to both you and to the University. Avoid stuff that doesn’t suit your objectives and what the institution really needs from you. Do it politely though!
- Learn how to say ‘Yes’. I can’t believe how often I have given in to that voice in my head that says ‘You could do that job’, and ended up with a whole load of responsibility I didn’t really want. You have to learn to set out your limits to the people who are asking you to do something. Make sure they know what they can really expect of you before you start.
- Make use of the wonderful flexibility that is on offer. Academics are lucky in that they have autonomy in what they research, generally what they teach and can take advantage of working from home. No other profession has that freedom. The flexibility helps you set your rules (point 1) and plans (point 2) and take some control over your life.
- Don’t weaponise your autonomy and turn it on yourself. If you haven’t set yourself clear goals and planned your time, the autonomy can become quite self-destructive. It is easy to get into a loop of ‘I must get a grant, do my teaching and write this paper’>> ‘but I don’t have time to do any of them effectively’. Go back to points 1 and 2 and take them very seriously.
- Don’t get angry at the various inefficiencies, quirks and idiocies of University systems. They are a fact of life and they will occasionally spoil your day. You can’t change them- many others have been there before you, have tried and failed. Scream, kick the cat or do whatever makes you feel better, give thanks that you don’t work in a truly monolithic bureaucracy like the NHS, and then move on.
- Cut off the intrusive technology to stop your work bleeding into your home life. Don’t put work email on your phone. Don’t log on to your email in the evening. Yes, sometimes you may need to monitor an experiment or data overnight, but you certainly don’t need to be available to students or responding to work emails on a Sunday morning.
- Be yourself. Do it your way and don’t feel that you have to follow the path trodden by others. Find what works for you and stick to it.
These are things that work for me and I don’t suggest that they will be a universal panacea. I do hope though that this article gives you pause for thought, encourages you to consider what matters and to take some action to bring some balance into your life.
Head of School