Joanna Williams loves her job: spending less time doing it won’t improve her well-being

If work is your passion, argues Joanna Williams, greater well-being doesn’t necessarily stem from spending more time at home

August 8, 2013

The annual gear change heralded by the onset of the summer vacation prompts me to reflect on my working life. Recent articles in Times Higher Education have highlighted both the extraordinarily long hours worked by some in the academy, and also the problems this can pose for those trying to combine scholarly work with the competing demands of family life. In most debates on the subject of work-life balance, the consensus is nearly always that what people really need is more of the “life” and less of the “work”.

Such discussions often end up focusing on the particular difficulties faced by female academics who can find themselves moving from having responsibility for young children to having responsibility for elderly parents in an alarmingly short space of time. Neither is exactly conducive to the long periods of quiet solitude necessary for sustained research and scholarship. For many women embarking on an academic career, the expectation that they will work long hours, move to different universities around the country to secure employment, and regularly attend conferences and networking events away from home, can appear impossible hurdles.

This sometimes results in calls to reduce, or at least better regulate, working hours. One such initiative is the New Economics Foundation’s campaign for everyone to work just 21 hours per week. As a female academic with three young children, I suspect that many people might expect me to join this campaign against long hours and competing pressures.

In fact, there are a few things about this debate that make me feel quite uncomfortable.

The thinktank suggests that less time in work is conducive to personal well-being. Surely this is the case only if you dislike your job or have little control over what you do. I’m lucky: I love my job. I work with, and teach, some really smart and engaged people. I get to spend my time teaching and researching topics I’m genuinely interested in. Although there are undoubtedly parts of my job I enjoy less (endless meetings, thankless administrative tasks), there is enough that I find challenging, stimulating and at times exciting to see me through marking essay number 65. In fact, I would go so far as to say that for me, the time I spend working is a major source of my well-being.

It is because I love my job, or more accurately the disciplinary area I work in, that I’m prepared to put the hours in. I often find myself reading journal articles before getting out of bed in the morning and replying to students’ emails last thing at night, but this is completely my decision. I’m motivated by intellectual curiosity, a desire to find out more, to win an argument, and to persuade my students to share my enthusiasm for a particular topic. For anyone who is passionately interested in their subject – which should be a given for anyone in an academic post – any suggestion that you should spend less time reading articles or books, responding to emails or engaging in debate is akin to being told to stop thinking.

Any attempt to regulate the hours worked by academics would, of course, be doomed to failure. One major problem is defining where work stops and personal interest starts, differentiating between the voluntary and the contractual. Often, key elements of the contractual, such as research excellence framework submissions, can be produced only when academics have autonomy to set their own working patterns (remember the outcry at Liverpool Hope University in 2009 when academics were instructed to spend 35 hours a week on campus unless they obtained formal permission to work off site).

None of this is to deny that sometimes there are real difficulties in juggling work and family; my teaching commitments don’t always coincide with school term dates and more childcare would definitely make my life easier. But these problems are exactly the same as those faced by anyone with children, no matter where they work or what their gender. The degree of control I have over my own working hours makes it far easier for me to organise family life. Some days I work for 10 or 11 hours without a break – but then on other days I’ll leave early and pick my daughter up from school. It is frustrating if I can’t attend a conference I want to go to, or if I need to leave a piece of work unfinished to go and collect my children, but the frustration is a symptom of finding the work interesting. I suspect that if I spent my days stacking shelves in a supermarket, I’d have a rather different view.

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