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.
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.
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.
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.