Friday, 9 March 2012

Thoughts on long hours...

Ironically, I've not had time to write this post, although I've been thinking about it a lot.
I’ve been thinking a lot about work-life balance recently and ended up having some interesting conversations about it. It’s the perennial problem in academia – if you ask an academic “how’s work?” the answer will always be “oh, busy”. One of the most dispiriting things about the recent UCU Work to Rule was the comments from academics glad to have their lives back. A Twitter “friend” recently asked his academic followers if we managed to keep a work-life balance. I was the only one out of eleven replies who said “yes”.

It’s been on my mind because this semester, as well as a heavy(ish) teaching load and PGCap assignments, I’ve won a research award to write a rapid evidence review. It’s all a bit much. With an assignment handed in at the start of the month and a two-week turnaround standard on marking I had to announce to my partner on Monday evening that this week I would be working some evenings and at the weekend to plough through my work and I hoped he wouldn’t mind. As it stands, I’ve managed to work efficiently enough that I’ve not worked too much outside my normal hours. And that’s the thing with me, so far, I’ve kept normal hours generally. I usually get out to campus for 9:00am and the latest I’ll work is 6:00pm. I try to get away from my desk for lunch to stop me going barmy and I very rarely work at weekends. I specifically don’t have my smartphone set up to automatically receive work emails because I want to keep that separate.

Yet on Twitter, while I sit and make sarcastic comments about Take Me Out on a Saturday evening after a nice dinner at a normal time, fellow academics are commenting on how they’re just sitting down after coming home from the office to finish that article off. Or on a week night at 9:00 pm people will be tweeting at how they’re just leaving the office. The THE recently ran a story highlighting how academics top the league for offering unpaid overtime.

When I read these tweets and other comments about hours worked sometimes I feel guilty. I feel I should be working that hard. But in the above mentioned Twitter conversation the response from someone else was “good on you”, and generally when I mention that I do this to other academics they are also supportive. My main motivation is that my “life” matters to me a great deal. I love my partner and my family and friends (my mum, for info [Lesley, not the homeless 16-year old]). The fact that my job takes up so much of my time  already and doesn’t pay enough to afford a train fare (although I think you need a bankers’ salary to manage that) means I don’t see family and friends as much as I’d like to. If I saw them even less through working hard I’d be very upset indeed. In one of my many chats recently about this subject, I discovered that a colleague who sends me emails at 9:00pm who I suspected was a bit of a workaholic, actually just works better at night. Which is rather nice.

So how has academia ended up like this? There is, obviously, an international culture that you must work very long hours and do everything fantastically well. In this way you will become a professor and change the world. The systems of personal development and review that most Universities now have, supported by the tools of governance like REF support this yet further. On my PGCap course there has been squeals from students that the time taken to learn how to make teaching better and more productive is taking time out of preparing REF-suitable publications. In my experience this manifests itself differently in different disciplines. In human geography it seems you have to be a full time left-wing activist, sleeping in an Occupy movement tent before dashing off to deliver inspiring lectures and subverting the institutions at University Committees. In the natural sciences you have to network-network-network; with government at endless meetings; with business leaders at networking breakfasts; with other scientists from around the world; while delivering inspiring lectures and bringing in billions of research grant income and developing a spin-out company. What I really hate is when this is then supported by almost macho bragging about this: the resigned comment at a conference “oh I worked until 3:00 am on Sunday morning to complete the paper and finish my research grant application”; “well I stayed up all weekend and completed a book, submitted two grant applications and had 48 hours of amazing sex with my beautiful wife”…

How can we change this? One thing I’ve certainly noticed helps resilience is the department you are in. My School is very good academically, but I do not feel there is a long hours culture. At all. I know some staff do work very long hours, but they do not brag about it, or comment about it with a sense of shame. At a recent job interview the fact the applicant commented on the very long hours they worked was seen as a negative thing. This helps me build my own resolve.

The other thing I have to do is just accept I won’t be an amazing academic. I’ll set myself modest PDR targets, I might get promoted at some point, but I’m not particularly bothered if I don’t. And this is something I’m learning that I’ll have to accept if this is my choice. What actually saddens me most about this is, to be modest, I think I’m quite a good scholar, and therefore it’s not me who will miss out on this, but academia. The long hours culture means I won’t shine as brightly as I might because everyone around me will be working 70 hour weeks and I’ll be watching Take Me Out.


  1. Thanks for writing about this Peter, and it's good to know that I'm not the only one in the world who feels guilty about 'not working hard' (even though 'hard work' is all relative).

  2. I agree! I also try to keep things in balance, but sometimes, just sometimes it doesnt work out and I've had to put in some long days/evenings lately to get things done. Marking 83 reports takes time - lots and lots of time(even if you are super efficient and dont have anything else to do)! It's been a evil week. Time for a coffee and a lie down.

  3. When working odd hours I used to schedule emails to send between 8 and 9:30am so people didn't realise I'd been working all night.

    It's a difficult balance to strike - being seen to be putting the effort in, but also not to be seen as someone who can't get their job done within the time allocated to do so.

    However both these are related to how you are perceived by others - as you alluded to, it's about your professional reputation and how it affects promotion. Ceasing to care about this SHOULD be a positive thing.

  4. For some years now, I've known that for me personally working long hours is counterproductive. I can do it for a day or two where a short-term burst is needed to hit a deadline, but beyond that working late means that I'm more tired and that I work slower (and worse) the next day, which means that I have to work later to keep up...aaaand repeat.

    According to this article that isn't just me:

  5. Simon - I saw you tweeted that article - I think HE can learn a helluva lot from that sort of insight!