A holiday survival guide for academics

Step away from work, don’t check your email and explain to your family what it is you actually do, Karen Rodham suggests 

December 20, 2019
Santa sitting on a chimney with a laptop
Source: iStock

Last year I wrote a Christmas survival guide for Grinches for The Conversation. This year I have been asked to write a survival guide for academics taking a Christmas break. While I am comfortable sharing my coping strategies for “Grinchmas” I am less confident offering advice about coping as an academic.

The reason is that, along with many other academics, I am finding academia to be an increasingly challenging place to be. The teaching and the research that we love is becoming ever more squeezed by what feels like endless extra demands that are stealthily creeping into our workload along with the “metricisation” of everything: teaching (TEF); research (REF); and knowledge exchange (KEF) as well as student satisfaction surveys – all of which are used together as fuel for the rankings game. The net result is that many academics feel that it is impossible to complete the myriad roles we are expected to juggle within the standard working week. Elizabeth Haswell at Washington University in St Louis wrote about the problem in an article entitled “The sustainable professor

One consequence of this Sisyphean role-juggling task is that it can be very hard to take a break. How then do we cope when faced with the Christmas holiday? It’s a time when, at least in the UK, we are expected to stop our work to spend time with friends and family.

How can we enjoy the holiday guilt-free when research is never done and unfinished marking looms? How do we explain to our family members just what it is we do as academics? How do we switch off from the relentless tide of emails?

I do not wish to downplay the systemic, political, economic and organisational problems our profession faces, nor am I for one moment suggesting that our own lack of resilience is a problem. But I’d like to share some top tips that may help academics have a well-deserved rest over the Christmas break.

‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’ Or at least, that is what American psychologist Susan Jeffers advocated. What about doing an experiment – see what happens if you do stop work over Christmas. Become aware of how strange it is for you to think that it is impossible for you to step away from your work. An example is my colleague’s recent “lightbulb moment”. He was planning to take his laptop away on his family Christmas holiday until his wife prompted him to rethink when she said she wished that she was a laptop so that he would spend time with her. I am hoping the laptop will stay at home.

Think about what it is that you are afraid of happening if you do pause. What might be the worst thing that could happen? More importantly, what might be the best thing that could happen? Have a contingency plan for the worst and then just try it. Stop. Pause. Leave your work behind. It is highly unlikely that the world will end, or that the sky will fall. Find out what it is like to be fully present with your loved ones.

Change your perspective Try viewing the time you will be spending with your non-academic friends and family as an opportunity to practise your communication skills. Can you explain what you do to 90-year-old great auntie Ethel and to six-year-old nephew Benjamin? Finding ways of explaining what it is you do will help your friends and family understand just how meaningful your work is. It is also excellent practice for writing lay summaries, explaining your work at public engagement activities and other impact events. In my experience, it is also quite likely that little Ben or auntie Ethel may well ask you questions that force you to see your work differently, and could spark new ideas for you to explore when you return to work.

Cold turkey email access? My opinion is that once we’re on holiday, the automatic out of office message should be activated for all emails until we are officially back at work. And we should keep our email turned off during that time. We should not be tempted to peek, because a peek leads to reading and then reading probably leads to responding. If you do this, you may as well not be on holiday, for in responding you are sending a very clear message: taking a break is not only something you do not value, but because you do not value it, you give others permission not to value your break. You create the expectation that you are always available, even when you say you are not.

I am not suggesting any of this is easy – for the first few hours post-switch off, you are likely to experience withdrawal. Sit with the uncomfortable feeling. Notice the uncomfortable feeling. Accept the uncomfortable feeling. Do not be tempted to renege on your decision to embrace your break, not even for a little bit. Be strong. Know that the uncomfortable feeling will pass. Your brain will begin to relax, and then your body will relax, and before you know it, you will have room to think. You will have room for fun. You will reconnect with the important things: your friends, your family, your cat. Most importantly, you will reconnect with yourself.

Lastly, a confession. For me, research and writing is the one thing that I love and it is the thing that is squeezed out by everything else. And so it sometimes ends up being the thing I do at weekends, in the evenings, and yes, even over a couple of my breaks in the past. So just to be clear, I am not holding myself up as a paragon of virtue. I am someone who is very good at helping other people take guilt-free breaks, but in an adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s words, I am also someone who, where I am concerned, “Tries, fails, tries again, fails again, but fails better”.  

May you find your own way to lay down your load, if not for all of your break, at least for a short time.

Merry Grinchmas one and all.

Karen Rodham is professor of health psychology at Staffordshire University and runs the Staffordshire Centre for Psychological Research.

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