Workload overload

June 13, 2013

When I read “Eight days a week” (6 June) I was particularly struck by the account of Philip Moriarty, professor of physics at the University of Nottingham, who said that in order to make up for the hours he spent with his children in the evenings and at weekends, he sometimes started work at 3am, as well as Alice White, the PhD student who confessed to trying to take “at least a half-day off a week”. The article also points out the striking “lack of resentment felt about what people in most walks of life would regard as an intolerably skewed work/life balance” among those interviewed.

I would agree that academia is not a “normal” 9 to 5 job. It is rare for academics to be able to switch off and many are permanently attached to email, read journal articles for fun and regularly put in long hours. Many don’t take the holiday to which they are entitled. In that sense, academia, particularly research, is definitely a vocation.

I know many people who have working patterns similar to those described in the article and who are happy (or at least not unhappy) with their working lives. However, in my day-to-day life as an academic and head of department, I meet plenty of people at all levels who are increasingly less prepared to put up with all this. They struggle daily to be fully engaged members of their families as well as academia. Brilliant young researchers leave the sector because they view the celebration of workload overload as inconsistent with their personal aims and goals. Newly appointed scholars find themselves under pressure to work 24/7 and to be excellent at all aspects of academic life in order to stand a chance of promotion.

Of course, this celebration/acceptance of long working hours is nothing new. A former head of department is reputed to have told a colleague that if they were in the office fewer than 40 hours a week, they had better make sure they were “really good” hours. I turned down one job offer partly because in that working culture, 60-hour weeks were the norm (it is interesting that said department was overwhelmingly male). Around the same time, I spent six weeks working in a public research institution and was struck by how most people finished work at 6pm, went home and did something else. For the first week I felt lost in the evenings, but I quickly recovered. I now look back at that time with fond memories. I also produced as much science during that period as at any other.

I was disappointed therefore that the article did not include some examples of academics who do not buy into the eight-days-a-week culture and yet still succeed. In reality, while the pressure to work all hours is indeed intense, it is not the only way to progress in academia. While some people undoubtedly work well like this and enjoy doing so, many are more productive when they work fewer hours and have a more balanced life.

We cannot afford to lose creative and talented people from the sector through the perpetuation of the 24/7 working culture as the only model.

Eleanor Highwood
Professor of climate physics
University of Reading

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