Workload, working weeks – a New Year reflection

I spend (too much?) a lot of time on Twitter reading what other academics have to say about their working lives and working hours. This post on how to work a regular working week has received some attention – my own timeline would suggest much of this attention is negative, with accusations that the author must be neglecting certain academic duties. Specifically is this particular academic collegial – that undefined term which seems to be used to police academics’ behaviour in any number of ways. Of course it’s difficult, or impossible to know, if the suggested neglect/lack of collegiality is the case. A couple of years ago I had a similar accusation levelled at me by someone who I’ve never met. They had seen me tweeting that it is possible to work a Monday to Friday working week as an academic. I can’t remember who the academic was, just that they seemed to quite strongly feel that other colleagues must be covering my work, if I was knocking off at 5.

The Christmas break made me realise how much I had been working the previous semester. A number of friends and colleagues had told me they thought I was working too much and needed to slow down, so I guess it must have been showing more to others than me. This wasn’t helped by working all through my annual leave the previous summer. In effect, I didn’t have a break for 12 months. I didn’t work at all over the Christmas break, apart from accessing webmail to delete superfluous emails. For three weeks I saw friends, travelled, watched (a lot of) Netflix and slept. Although it took me two weeks to start to sleep properly, something colleagues have also echoed. Many of my colleagues are exhausted. Utterly and completely exhausted; emotionally, intellectually and physically. For what?

Working very long hours is a breach of my own imposed rules. My father taught me that I should work to live, not live to work. Taking a proper break did mean that I had to catch up on emails (took me a couple of days, although not all at once), reviews (nearly done – voice recognition software helped here), and general work sent through. Of course if I had taken off 3 weeks not over Christmas there would be more work to do. However, I returned with energy. I’ve been told by two colleagues that I look healthy (which isn’t code for anything else apparently) and seem much happier. So now my challenge is to not work so hard this semester. It will be easier as it’s not my teaching semester, so much of the work I do will be within my own control. Apart from writing this blog (!), I have been knocking off at about 6 – starting at 8am, means I am doing roughly a 10 hour day, x 5 = 50 hour week. This is still way more than the 37 which my workload accounts for, but so far it’s working. It has required alerting colleagues that I am being more strategic with my time. I’ve had conversations with my PhD students about how we can work together to ensure we aren’t overworking – because I am part of a team, and there needs to be an open discussion. I don’t want to model unhealthy and unproductive working patterns for students, whether UG or PhD. I’ve also raised it in my performance appraisal so my workload can be looked and I can work with my institution to find a solution.

I’ve received positive comments from everyone I have raised this with. Still, I feel as if I have raised a taboo subject – my workload (both institutional and other external activities) and its unsustainability. Am I admitting to some form of ‘weakness’? Or perhaps there is the risk that it will be interpreted as un-collegial. I don’t want anyone else to cover my work, and I don’t see that will be the case as long as I am keeping up with my responsibilities. I make time for students, of course. My students know I keep a working week, and consistently  report that I am available as and when needed and get back to them quickly if I am not available. I care deeply about students’ well-being and education, and wouldn’t ever want to not be there if needed. I also care about my research, and communicating it in the various ways which are required. It must be possible however, to maintain an academic career and my own health simultaneously? Twitter is full of academics tweeting how much they are working. I welcome an open discussion of how we can keep high standards of teaching and research (if relevant) and, if we want to, a life outside of academia. I wonder if working together is the key – to support each other, recognising that some may need or benefit from working ‘unusual’ hours, while others for equally important reasons, try to keep to a ‘regular’ working week.

Update – this post on giving up on academic stardom is worth a look and is relevant to some internal debates I’ve had about why I research.


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