Challenging the long hours culture in academia

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

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to the Productive Academic blog

The new generation of academics in the 21st Century are facing a more competitive, more performance orientated, less secure future in Higher Education. There is a lot of negativity out there! So how about some practical and optimistic personal development support from a fellow ECR? Welcome to the Productive Academic blog.

The new generation of academics in the 21st Century are facing a more competitive, more performance orientated, less secure future in Higher Education. There is a lot of negativity out there! So how about some practical and optimistic personal development support from a fellow ECR? Welcome to the Productive Academic blog.

My story – so far

As an early career researcher in the UK I have always prided myself on getting through the PhD process relatively unscathed, and attribute much of this to being organised and determined, having good supervisors and working hard at my research. Now in a faculty (lecturer) position I am excited about the challenges of the academic role. I enjoy teaching students (yes, even the annoying ones) and I enjoy my research (yes, even the tedious parts of the data collection, and yes, even the challenge of the writing process). One of the draws of this career choice for me was the variety of work, the opportunity to be creative and innovative in my research, to transfer knowledge through education and collaboration, and to help develop others whilst continuously learning more myself. Let’s just say, on joining the academic profession I wanted to have it all!

However, I was initially (and sometimes still am) frustrated by the seemingly commonplace conception that approaching this role in a holistic way is not a good strategy for being a successful academic in my field. More experienced colleagues told me “you must prioritise your writing above all else”, “as long as your teaching is acceptable that’s good enough, don’t spend time on it, concentrate on your research”; or “don’t take on any more administrative roles/teaching/PhD students than you absolutely have to, they are such a drain on your time” and I was disappointed by their negativity. Determined to at least give it a shot I vowed to spend the next few years trying to embrace all aspects of the role and at best, prove that it can be done, and at the worst, learn from my own mistakes and know that I tried.

I decided that in order to give myself the best chance of being a well-rounded academic I needed to be as efficient in the way that I worked as possible – albeit without becoming a productivity robot, churning out papers and module courses as quickly as possible. Therefore about a year ago I decided to make my own personal development a top priority and sought out resources, and suggestions on how to improve myself and become better at all aspects of what I do. A year into this journey I by no means claim to have found a solution. I openly admit that the chances of all those voices of experience being right is pretty high but maybe – just maybe, you, like me, hope that they might be wrong. What I can say is that I have learned some tricks along the way and this blog is my way of sharing these with you.

Productive Academic

 As the title suggests this is a blog about productivity for academics. It is inspired by resources, books, podcasts, blogs etc. on productivity and creativity, but whilst most this content is traditionally aimed at managers or entrepreneurs, I intend to discuss and apply it to the UK academic context. I am generally interested in the following topics:

  • Managing and organising our time, juggling deadlines and commitments with different time scales and levels of priority.
  • Work life balance (whatever this might be interpreted to mean)
  • How to be creative and innovative in our work, to keep those ideas flowing
  • How to keep going, build/sustain momentum and stretch ourselves to achieve higher goals, maintain high energy to get more done
  • The psychological pressures of academia including rejection, imposter syndrome, emotional labour and self esteem

Practical Optimism

The content of this blog is aimed to be practical rather than political. I, like most people in the profession have my own views on the higher education climate and current affairs, however, I do not wish to use this blog to preach ideology or criticise the practices of higher education institutions and government policy. Instead, the intended focus here will be more on practical optimism. From my story above, I hope you can see that my intention in exploring these subjects is one of personal development. The aim is to navigate the challenges we face to become a better version of ourselves. These might seem like small aims, but there are many other commentators out there who discuss Higher Education and these wider issues. Here, whilst I would like to remain open to discussing university practices and government policies, I intend to focus on the day-to-day practical impact these have on the way we do our work – whether this may be positive or negative.

Finally, it is worth saying here, that this is not a blog solely about academic writing (I recommend Write4Research or Explorations of Style, for these). Writing for journals, book chapters, etc. is undoubtedly a large part of our work and an area where I have personally faced considerable productivity challenges (as I’m sure many others have too) and therefore the writing process will likely be featured here quite considerably. My intention however, is to go beyond this focus and to write a blog for all-around academic practice – not just about writing.

So, whether you are a PhD student, a fellow early career researcher, have more experience, or even if you are those colleagues who know better, I hope that you enjoy reading about my experiences and that some of them may relate to your own efforts too. I look forward to sharing my trials and tribulations with you, and hearing your comments and discussions. If you would like to get in contact please leave comments on the blog, or get in touch on twitter @Productiveacad