Challenging the long hours culture in academia

Sometimes academia feels like a competition to see who is willing to make the biggest sacrifice


A number of recent reports have once again raised the issue of the increasing working hours of academic staff. Those in the teaching and education sector are doing more extra work and unpaid overtime than any other group of employees and the average academic is working 13.4 hours (the equivalent of almost two days) over and above their contract each week. In this blog post I want to share with you some recent experiences in trying to reduce my own working hours.

One of the main attractions of an academic career for me was the flexibility in terms of working hours, but I realised quite quickly that with this flexibility also comes a lack of boundaries and complex expectations around working hours and holiday – well that’s fine, I thought, if I have a job that I love, I wont mine staying late or working weekends. But sometimes academia feels like a competition to see who is willing to make the biggest sacrifice. We seem to hold those who work excessive hours up as a standard of success and many ECRs seem to believe it is necessary to work 100+ hours to make it as a scholar. I asked myself whether it is really necessary?

Over the last 6 months I have been trying to cut down my working hours. The main motivations for this were to spend more time with my family, to try to relax more, and, quite frankly, to see if it was possible.

Here is what I did:

  • Hard stop time on the working day: I did this because I wanted to improve my eating habits (i.e. eat earlier and have time to cook) and be able to allow time to wind down and improve my sleep. I decided on 6pm and as a safeguard decided to adopt the policy that if I needed more time, I would come in earlier rather than stay later.
  • Claiming back my weekends: To combat the “I should be working” guilt I started by giving myself one work-free day a week. I would make myself read a book, or go for a walk to keep my mind and hands occupied. I have since increased this to both days unless there is a real emergency.
  • Tracking my Annual Leave: My institution, like many doesn’t have a formal system to keep track of academic annual leave and neither my line manager nor I would count up the days of annual leave I used. So I created a spreadsheet and started keeping track. In January I took a week of annual leave even though I had no trips or activities planned. I did nothing for the whole week (well, nothing work related anyway). It felt strange – but ultimately did me a lot of good I think.

Sticking to these boundaries was hard at first but there have been lots of positive outcomes from this experience, mostly relating to improvements in my physical health and well-being. I started to see an improvement in the way I felt about my work quite quickly. Having time to stop and reflect made me look forward to Mondays more. Work felt more enjoyable and less like an unending list of things I should be doing.

Whilst I would say there has been an improvement in my efficiency during working hours (e.g. knowing I need to stop at 6pm has really upped my post-lunchtime productivity), I don’t want to give the impression that the key to managing an increasing workload is simply ‘work smarter’ or ‘manage your time better’. There are things that I’ve had to say no to because of these restrictions. I have had to renegotiate deadlines. I have had to find ways to reduce my teaching prep time (more on these in future blog posts).

But, by far the biggest challenges have been in having the confidence to challenge a culture and a system that pressures you to conform to a long hours culture. A colleague told me last week, that she had no plans to take annual leave over the Easter break, because she was (and I quote) “saving all my leave for a research trip in September”. She intended to spend four weeks collecting data in Brazil for a new research project and felt that the only way she could justify this much time away from the office was by taking it as leave. When you think about it, this is absurd! The purpose of annual leave is to take a break from work, not as a way to manage your workload.

My above practices have sparked a number of conversations with fellow academics, mostly when I was explaining why I was leaving at 6pm. A majority of people were supportive but I also came across some people who seemed to view my practices as a mark of weakness. Often feeling the need to ‘humblebrag’ – to tell me how working in the evening and on the weekends has led them to be so successful. There are very few stories of the benefits of working less.

An anecdote from a recent interview candidate who was trying to emphasise her ‘fantastic work ethic’ at a departmental presentation is a particularly extreme, but illustrative, example of the pressure that academics face to conform to this culture. She explained that her PhD supervisor told her in the first month of her PhD that he expected her to work at least 70-80 hours a week, and if she didn’t want to do that, she should consider another career option.

The more we buy in to the ‘who works the longest’ competition, the more we are contributing to this long hours culture and its unhealthy practices. Changing this culture certainly wont happen overnight, but I would encourage anyone feeling this pressure not to engage in competitive sacrificing and instead to challenge those around us who boast about pulling all nighters marking assignments, or missing their child’s birthday party to write a grant application. By asking them why they feel they need to adopt these unhealthy practices or set their priorities in this order, we can stop reinforcing the normality of this culture and send a message that you are not willing to compete.






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