How many hours a week should academics work?

Some surveys show faculty putting in at least 60 hours a week, but research casts doubt on whether this is a productive routine

January 14, 2016
Stressed businessman answering four telephones
Source: Corbis

How many hours do you work in a week? Many academics feel overworked and exhausted by their jobs. But there is little evidence that long hours lead to better results, while some research suggests that they may even be counterproductive.

The research on how long academics work is patchy, but on the whole it shows that scholars are putting in longer hours than the average worker, and certainly more than the 9-to-5 norm that in any case seems to be disappearing from Western workplaces. A 1999 study by the US Department of Education found that full-time faculty clocked up 55 hours a week. A survey 15 years later at Boise State University in Idaho found an even more gruelling schedule: faculty worked an average 61-hour workweek, including 10 hours at the weekend.

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Junior academics do not have it any easier. A 2005 survey of science postdocs in the US found that they worked 51 hours a week (which meant that their hourly salary of $14.90 (£10.24) was not even a dollar higher than that of the janitors at Harvard University, the report pointed out).

In the UK, more than a third of respondents to a 2012 survey by the University and College Union said that they worked more than 50 hours a week, with 8 per cent working more than 60 hours (although this survey included administrators as well as academics). More than half said that they were “always” or “often” pressured to work long hours. A follow-up survey two years later suggested that work hours had risen even further.

Read more: Universities should ask whether their academics work too much

But what about the fabled long academic holidays? A Universities UK report from 2010 found that academics actually worked longer outside term time – 45 hours a week, instead of 38 hours – as their focus turned from teaching to research.

So deeply has a long-hours culture pervaded academia that Meghan Duffy, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, felt compelled to argue in a blog last year that “you do not need to work 80 hours a week to succeed in academia”.

Do such long hours actually achieve much? For most of the 20th century, the consensus was “no”. Henry Ford famously cut his employees’ hours to eight a day, in part because he thought it would improve the quality of their work. Even in 1980, the Business Roundtable, a conservative group of US chief executives, put out a report warning that excessive overtime led to fatigue, injuries and absenteeism. On construction projects, a team working 60 hours a week for more than two months got no more done than the same team labouring for 40 hours, they cautioned.

A 2014 study of British munitions workers during the First World War pinpointed exactly when the tipping point of productivity starts. After 49 hours a week of toil, hourly productivity starts to drop. Beyond 60 hours, extra effort appeared to produce nothing more at all.

Academic work is obviously very different from using a lathe in a factory. It requires creativity, intense intellectual effort and the social skills to deal with colleagues and students. The question is whether knowledge workers are more or less easily depleted by long hours than their manual counterparts.

One of the few studies of knowledge workers’ productivity looked at Wall Street bankers who in their first few years clocked up between 100 and 120 hours a week.

Alexandra Michel, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and a former Goldman Sachs banker herself, says that in the first year or so of this routine, the bankers were relatively unaffected. But by year four, “performance broke down as bodies broke down”, she says.

“They suffered from chronic exhaustion, insomnia, back and body pain, autoimmune diseases, heart arrhythmias, addictions, and compulsions, such as eating disorders,” reported her study, “Participation and Self-Entrapment: A 12-Year Ethnography of Wall Street Participation Practices’ Diffusion and Evolving Consequences”, published in The Sociological Quarterly in 2014.

Even then, the exhausted bankers could still perform technical skills such as maths, “but everything that required creativity, judgement, ethics, broke down”, she explains. Her research describes a previously mild-mannered banker who flew into a rage at a taxi driver – banging on his windows and swearing – after not being able to open the car door.

Academics’ workweeks, as long as they are, are not nearly as lengthy as those on Wall Street (yet). But Michel suggests that they are nevertheless far too long. Four hours a day is probably the limit for those looking to do genuinely original research, she says. In her experience, the only people who have avoided burnout and achieved some sort of balance in their lives are those sticking to this kind of schedule.

Another academic study, published last year, examined the working patterns of more than 100 employees at a global strategy consulting firm. While some put in 80-hour workweeks, travelling overnight to meet clients at the drop of a hat, others managed to cut this down to 50 or 60 hours without bosses noticing. “A critical implication of this research is that working long hours is not necessary for high quality work,” wrote co-author Erin Reid, an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.

Read more: You do not need to work 80 hours a week to succeed in academia

Why, then, do some academics work such long hours if there is little productivity benefit?

“Academics are unusual in the sense that most of us continue to put in long hours even after we achieve tenure,” says Andrea Prat, a professor of economics at Columbia University who has studied time use by chief executives. “It can only mean that we really love what we do.”

Oriana Bandiera, a professor of economics at the London School of Economics who also worked on the time-use project, agrees. “Senior tenured professors could easily do compulsory tasks in 35 hours, and they face no pressure to abide to prevailing cultural norms as they have little to prove – yet most of those I know (including myself) work double that and enjoy it.”

But Michel is sceptical. Many of the 100-hour bankers and consultants she interviewed also claimed that they loved what they did.

Instead, she thinks that because academics do not have their hours strictly defined and regulated (as manual workers do), “other controls take over. These controls are peer pressure.”

At parties, Michel is constantly asked what she has published recently. Working at the weekend is a “badge of honour” for academics, she says. And because knowledge workers, be they academics or bankers, are constantly competing against each other, their hours keep ratcheting up.

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Reader's comments (7)

The number of hours depends on two factors: 1) the way the academic does his work, which may be such that he is a workaholic or the opposite a pretender and 2) his political place within the university, does he need to establish himself or does his position hold stable. The trouble is that with stability comes a lack of planing for a better future and the same old teaching methods and information are all that is put across. This leads to students who are only interested in passing their exams and qualifying, and it fails to have much interest in the subject of their studies and in any excitement of new developments. We can thank our stars that in most places there is a glimmer of some of the latter kind of progress because clearly it is most noticeable by its absence.
Having seen technical staff loaded with delivering (teaching) courses, along with all their 'normal' duties, so the part time academics only need to attend one day every few weeks in one faculty at one extreme. To the academic's in another faculty having to deliver the same lecture 3 times the same day due to over subscription (and lack of teaching space for 300 plus students at the same time) with the commitment to be available to all those students individually if needed at the other. I have no doubt the sector is building up to major health issues due to over work for a lot of staff, the failed commercial sector theorists/H.R. directors who keep pushing their failed methods no longer accepted elsewhere in Universities really do believe academics are lazy, not 'smart' workers who should retain autonomy and 'control' their own workload, and need to push them into working ever longer hours to please both the customers (students) and the business people on the University Council by selling their teaching to make ever greater profits. Time to step back and ask what are Universities for, making money? Or something more esoteric?
The pressure is not to work more hours -- the pressure is to remain productive in every area (teaching, research, and service). I am tenured but if I want a promotion, I have to keep publishing and attending conferences and still manage to get decent teaching evaluations and do my fair share of service or risk being rejected by the other faculty. Ostensibly, I am 40% research, 40% teaching, and 20% service (primarily committee work) of a 40-hour work week, but no one keeps track of my hours or asks if I work weekends. They only ask what I have published. When school is in session, teaching and service average close to 50% each -- but I'm still expected to devote 40% to research. So, that's 20 hours teaching, 20 hours service, and 16 hours of research. Service in particular has increased as permanent, full-time faculty positions have been cut; someone still has to serve on those committees for the department, the college, and the university. Class sizes are larger, as well, and so is the advising load. I am called more frequently to serve on graduate committees. In addition, due to e-mail and online course management, I am never not "at work." I check e-mail every morning and every evening, seven days a week, as well as course discussion forums. Every semester, I swear that I am going to take weekends off, but that just means that I have three days worth to deal with on Monday. I take the laptop with me when I travel, even on vacation.
This is all true. However, I would encourage academics to carefully read their contracts and, perhaps, take ownership of their own life and time. Most of the pressure to perform beyond reason is partly the result of academics just accepting the situation passively. As a Lecturer on probation (Russel's group University), in the past 3 years, I have logged an average of between 9-10 hours/day (formally monitored not just a wild guess) in addition to working most nights of the week at home. I started my work day in the office relatively early (7:00) and also ended it relatively early (16:30-17:00). Then I used to home, take a break/have dinner, and most often do some work between 20:00-23:00. Except for days when I was attending conferences, meetings, etc., I was in my office in the Department (it is much easier to interact with students, PhDs, postdocs, colleagues and admin). I taught an average of 3 modules/year (each 12 weeks long, 5 to 8 contact hours/week) in addition to supervising dissertations/projects (between 4-6/year). I also teach a 2/3-week field course (about 10+ hours/day) every year. Of course, teaching means that one has to design modules, lectures, practicals, mark papers, exams, set exam papers, deal with exam board meetings, attend teachers meeting, undertake professional development workshops, ... In addition, I had to enrol in a Master program in higher education (attending lectures and having exams) as part of my training as a teacher/Lecturer and to achieve the status of fellow of the HEA. Funny enough, although they thought I needed training as a Lecturer, the University was quite happy to let me teach from day one my own modules without any mentoring, supervision, or other help by more senior colleagues (not to mention any advance notice) ... I am roughly 40% teaching, 40% research, and 20% admin/service (this is not formally/rigorously defined in my department but it is what I discussed with my line manager) so in addition to teaching duties I wrote papers (I averaged 4-5/year), proposals (1-2 larger grants, 2-4 minor ones), performed research, co-supervised PhD's, and did a bunch of admin on a regular basis. I was responsible for organising (and attending) University open days for our department, as well as participated in other outreach activities. All this required well in excess of 40 hours/week ... And, of course, after three years of this nightmare, my probation was extended as I was not able to complete two exams for my training program/master. I finally collapsed during the summer two years ago and I nearly lost my kidneys because of severe dehydration induced by two weeks of illness. By the way, only one of my colleagues (and good friend) asked me how I was during that period ... So after careful consideration of what this workload was doing to me, I made a firm decision that except for exceptional circumstances or close to deadlines, I will not access work emails after 18:00 and I will not work during weekends (or if I do I will take time off in lieu). This year, for the first time, I took 25 days of holiday (no computer or email), which together with Sat/Sun and bank holidays allowed me to have two nice longer breaks, one in the summer one in the winter, and a 2/3 shorter weekends. Many colleagues of mine argued that if I kept working longer hours including nights, I could speed up my career. Unfortunately, that would also kill me, similarly to how it is killing them. I also decided to reduce my workload altogether (I discussed with my line manager how to achieve this) to what I deem reasonable in order to have a more balanced life. If what I deem reasonable will not coincide with my employer's requirements, I will simply leave my job (they can give it to somebody else that is willing to devote their life to the University) and do something else. I, and most of my colleagues in my field, have skills that are very much sought after. Employment opportunities are not something I lack (just look around with and keep an open mind). I do what I do (teaching and research) because I love it, but that does not mean that it's all I have in life. For me, it is a job and it should remain a job, not become an obsession.
Academic staff has to stop moaning and get on with it. Try to work in private sector for a while, hospitality for example and then you can compare and contrast.
I've worked as a senior lecturer for five years since completing my PhD, and working conditions have deteriorated year on year to the point where I now consider it to be at breaking point. I'm a module leader on eight, 15 credit modules. That has me teaching 18 hours a week, supervising two PhD's and six dissertations. On top of that I am a course leader and a personal tutor for more than 60 students. I am a link tutor for two partner colleges. Each of the eighteen hours per week I now teach is 'unique' (or no repeat labs or seminars) so I have literally eighteen hours of teaching to plan for each week. I had a a total of six assessments submitted (with roughly 30 students to be assessed per assessment) two weeks ago. That equals 180 scripts. The amount of feedback the University now insist we provide means that I'm spending at least 30 mins per script, so that is 90 hours of marking. All marking must be marked within two weeks (to be moderated and returned to students within 3). So that is 35 hours per week of marking on top of my 18 hours per week teaching (sum 53 hours). Last week I had to run a school visit for 3 hours, plus I had a curriculum development meeting (3 hours). I also had 8, 15 minute personal tutoring meetings with students and two, 30 minute dissertation meetings. I also had a one hour meeting with a PhD student. That took my 'office hours' up to 63. Those 63 hours don't include teaching prep (even if I stuck to the Universities recommended, yet ludicrous, 30 minutes prep per one hour teaching guideline that would be 9 hours. In reality, it's at least double that. So I'm up to 81 hours). Bear in mind I haven't yet opened an email, or even contemplated replying to the reviewers minor amendments on my latest journal submission. Meanwhile another week goes by whilst the programme handbook and KISS reports I have been asked to write remain unwritten, the IRAS form I've been working on any chance I get remains untouched for another week. I thought about raising a grievance, but just don't have the time to write it! I'll add that this is a normal week. Next week, for example, I won't have the marking but I will have to moderate my colleagues marking. And as link tutor to those two partner colleges I'll have to moderate theirs, too. The following week I have to give up 8 hours to an 'applicant day' and I might finally get round to writing that programme handbook and KISS reports (if continue to work >80 hours per week, of course).
@ GoblinMatters: if you are not an academic, maybe you should try ... it's that easy after all, anybody can do it. Perhaps, we - academics - are just smarter than others, getting paid for doing absolutely nothing all day ... aren't we? If you are an academic ... well ... I just don't understand why you speak the way you do, frankly. I would encourage you to read, carefully, the post from Disillusioned academic. It is fairly typical stuff. Many of us (academics) are under so much stress these days. Our mental and physical health suffer from this with more and more people falling ill because of unacceptable work hours and conditions. Before starting a "career" in academia, I worked for 15 years a 24/7 job - truly 24/7 - in hazard management, where the lives of people can depend on one's judgement and decisions. The stress levels in that job - although of different nature - where not even comparable to those I now experience in academia. I thoroughly resent my choice of becoming an academic and I will be leaving this job as soon as possible. Job opportunities for highly-skilled individuals - like most academics are - fortunately, come around relatively often. However, if we let all our talents leave ... well ... what is going to happen to higher education and societal progress?

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