How to survive the academic treadmill

When working hours are stretched to cover marking, induction and other tasks, what is a busy scholar to do? Here, James Derounian offers suggestions for taking essential downtime

James Derounian's avatar
University of Bolton
13 Dec 2023
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How to manage your busyness to avoid burnout
How to manage your busyness to avoid burnout

Academics sign up to a balance of duties and – as a generalisation – 40 hours per week. That’s what we are paid for. Of course, the actual hours – not least at pinch points such as induction and the marking season – are way over the odds. To address the job specification and, for example, serve students effectively, however, we tend to “bite the bullet” and expect that we will end up working beyond the officially recorded hours.

It’s a game that, as Iain Hay acknowledges in How to Be an Academic Superhero, puts extreme pressures on academics. These pressures are compounded by threats of redundancy, the incidence of short-term contracts, demands to raise staff productivity and unrealistic expectations to deliver more tasks with less resources, including fewer staff.

We must challenge the habit of seeing overwork as a badge of honour. How often have you heard a colleague say: “I worked three evenings last week, plus the weekend” as if it were worthy of merit when in fact it plays into a view whereby significant unpaid overtime or a lack of time-off-in-lieu is normalised or even expected.

How to manage a university workload

So how do we survive this treadmill? Here are suggestions to manage workload, switch off and stay sane.

Learn to say no

First, we have to argue a case for saying “no”. We have to use our critical-thinking skills to assemble evidence (of over-houring) and tactfully articulate reasons not to accept burdens way beyond contractual hours. Some extras, maybe yes; many additions, no.

Similarly, join a union that defends our interests – one that, for example, pays for an employment lawyer if human resources come knocking.

Likewise, if you have Covid or a hacking cough, don’t go into the office and martyr yourself on the altar of work (and infect colleagues and students in the process). Given greater home working during and after pandemic lockdowns, it should be much more acceptable to work in comfortable, non-infecting surrounds. If we are signed off sick, however, we shouldn’t work (not even remotely). Managers should ensure cover. I remember limping along with pneumonia and posting video lectures from home. I am sure that exertion extended my recovery time, which further affected colleagues left standing.

Protect your time carefully

Other turn-off “dos” include not constantly monitoring your smartphone messages; instead, signal at the end of emails that “I will make every effort to respond to your message within x [say, two working] days”.

Take holidays as due; seek to work these into periods when work is lighter (for example, mid-semester), and when travel and accommodation might be cheaper.

Maybe there are types of assessment that can ease the burden of marking while still being academically appropriate; for example, set a self-marking multiple-choice online exam or maybe a group task or presentation, so that rather than marking five individual submissions, it’s a single piece of teamwork.

Ultimately, we are of no use to any person or beast – that is, manager, student, colleague, spouse or partner – if we are run ragged and ill.

Cultivate a life away from work

Research from 2020 points to the importance of out-of-work activities to aid stress management and downtime. It’s also clear that physical activity is essential – swimming, cycling, badminton, walking, whatever you like. Just as examples, I do tai chi and Iyengar yoga. In both cases, I feel unwound and revived, so I return to work with a clearer head and more confident in reaching better decisions. These activities require full attention, which has the benefit of de-stressing and enabling me to attain distance from knee-jerk – and not necessarily constructive – reactions.

I always have a novel on the go as an escape from reading about pedagogy, modules and research strategies. I commend to colleagues that they read for pleasure – whether fiction or non-fiction. Again, reading requires concentration, which can help blank out the siren calls of emails, work niggles and pressures.

As social beasts, most of us need time with friends and loved ones – go to the zoo or cinema, take a walk together, meet up for a coffee or, a big one, try to eat together – whether it’s an evening meal or something more leisurely at weekends. 

Connect with kindness

I try to follow the words attributed to the Reverend John Wesley: “Do good: as we have time, and opportunity, to do good in every possible kind, and in every possible degree to all.” (This is not said out of religious conviction.) Random acts of kindness – volunteering, helping needy neighbours – not only help others but make you feel better, too. It’s something to import into work – the simplicity of saying “thank you” for a job well done or: “Please, can you…” It costs nothing but forethought.

Why it’s OK to slow down

In counterpoint to being a (imaginary) superhero, I strongly encourage colleagues to read The Slow Professor. Authors Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber challenge “the culture of speed in the academy”. It’s only 90 pages of text and highly accessible. They believe that slow ideals “restore a sense of community and conviviality” and that slow professors “act with purpose, cultivating emotional and intellectual resilience to the effects of the corporisation of higher education”.

James Derounian lectures on community governance; he is a national teaching fellow and a visiting professor at the University of Bolton, UK.

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