Get a life? Not with our hours

August 22, 2003

New guidelines on work-life balance have met with scepticism. Phil Baty reports.

Richard White does not have much of a personal life. He is a -year old postdoctoral student at Imperial College London's physics department and it is routine for him to work until midnight on weekdays. "The only reason I don't go beyond that is because I live on the other side of town and I wouldn't get home if I left work any later," he said.

On top of a soul-destroying weekday cycle of bed-work-bed-work, not to mention the dead time spent in airport lounges and hotel rooms as he makes his monthly trips to the Cern particle physics laboratory in Geneva, Dr White also loses most of his precious weekends.

"I'll do a few hours on Saturday and about six hours on Sunday evenings," he said. "I'm contracted to work a 35-hour week, but you'd never get done what is expected of you if you worked only that. When I was doing my PhD I used to sleep in the office. At least I get home at night these days."

For Dr White, last week's announcement by university employers and trade unions that they had thrashed out a set of guidelines on work-life balance was pretty meaningless.

For one thing, they are guidelines - reminding employers of their minimum legal obligations on issues such as maternity and paternity rights and setting out best practice for family-friendly, flexible working practices such as career breaks and home working.

While they might help academics with families remember what their spouses and children look like, the guidelines do nothing to address the fundamental issues of excessive workloads that are damaging family life, and do little to help young academics to find life outside work.

"It is the culture that postdocs are simply cannon fodder. We are expected to do all the hard technical stuff, and all the work that takes a very, very long time," Dr White said. "Our targets are based on research outcomes, so you have to work as long as it takes. If things are not going to plan, you have to stay behind.

"To get on, you have to work phenomenally long hours, and if you want a permanent academic career, you have to endure five or six years of it."

The guidelines, published by the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff, explain to university managers the benefits of offering a better work-life balance.

"Offering employees flexibility and control over working arrangements may provide recruitment and retention incentives that can help higher education institutions compete in a market where employers in other sectors and countries are able to offer considerably higher salaries."

But for Dr White, it is too little too late. "I'm fed up and I'm leaving," he said. He is scouring the job market in the City, where as a mathematics whizz he can double his £22,500 salary overnight.

To Gargi Bhattacharya, a 35-year-old lecturer in cultural studies at the University of Birmingham and an executive member of the Association of University Teachers, the guidelines are similarly disappointing. "They assume that academics have actually got a life in the first place," she said. "With the hours we work it's hard even to find a regular partner to start a family with."

Dr Bhattacharya is "desperate" to start a family, but her job makes it almost impossible. "You have to have a family to be friendly to and most of us can't get to that point."

It does not help to have role models such as Baroness Greenfield, the first female director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, who has been quoted saying that her academic career is incompatible with having children. When the collapse of the 52-year-old's marriage to Oxford don Peter Atkins was played out across the national media earlier this year, she said: "I've never said women scientists shouldn't or can't have children. What I used to say is that the government should do something to make it easier."

Dr Bhattacharya accepts that the guidelines are a step in the right direction. The document points out that 65 per cent of women with dependent children are in employment compared with 90 per cent of men, suggesting that women with children will dominate future employment growth. It also stresses that there are more than 1.5 million one-parent families in the UK.

"It is always a good thing to spell out to universities their minimum legal responsibilities, because you'd be surprised how often they do not seem to know them," she said.

But the problem runs deeper. Even if universities dramatically changed to best-practice family-friendly working overnight, there would be little change without a deeper cultural shift, she believes.

In a poll by the AUT earlier this year, more than one-third of academics said that the quality of their life was damaged to an "unacceptable" level by work commitments. The union said that, while funding per student was cut by 40 per cent between 1989 and 1999, the ratio of students to staff had doubled from 9:1 to 18:1 in the past decade.

Underfunding in the system means that career breaks, even if offered in good faith, inevitably damage careers, Dr Bhattacharya said. "Most young academics have to work every hour God sends just to stay on top of standard workloads. You are running to stand still with just teaching and administration. But within that you have to find time for some research and scholarly activity."

She explained: "Who knows how long it takes to write a world-beating paper? How many great papers are enough? If you want to get on, there is never a point at which you are doing enough."

Ann Gow took the plunge into motherhood at 38. She is research development officer at Glasgow University and counts herself "very lucky" that she has one of six childcare places for babies at the university for her 11-month-old son James.

"I'm practically a single mother, as my partner works in London for the BBC and only comes up here every second weekend to see James. It's been very important to get the childcare place - so many people do not - and it's great that I've had a supportive line manager who lets me come in early and leave early so I can spend some time with my boy."

But she has made career sacrifices to have a family. "It makes your career much more difficult," she said. "I'm managing to do what I have to do, but it's hard to push yourself forwards in terms of your career. Male colleagues are always further advanced."

She says it's impossible for her to network and attend conferences. "You have to make sure you're not shoving your child in the corner at home and spending all the time working. I work in the evenings after nine, but I'm often exhausted. You firefight in a way."

The fourth national Work Life Balance week takes place from September 1 to 5. Organised by the charity Work-Life Balance Trust and sponsored by the Department for Education and Skills among others, it aims to increase awareness of the escalating work-related stress that affects young people particularly.

What the law says

• From April this year, all parents of children under six year's old, or parents of disabled children aged under 18 are allowed to request flexible working. While their employers are not obliged to change their employees' working patterns, they are obliged to demonstrate that they have "seriously" considered the request. Employees can request a change to working hours (including a reduction), a change to working times (including flexitime and self-rostering) and can ask to work from home

• The Employment Act 2002 introduced a statutory right to two weeks' paid paternity leave for the first time in the UK

• The Employment Act also introduced adoptive leave and pay entitlement for the first time

• Legal rights to parental leave - the right to take unpaid time off work to look after a child or to make arrangements for a child's welfare - for up to 12 weeks for each child, were established for the first time in December 1999.

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