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Academic overwork ‘leaves no time for keeping healthy’

Written by: John Ross
Published on: 4 Nov 2020

Two people watching an artist doing yoga in a container

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An academic career can make staying healthy a challenge

As few as one in five academics in the UK and Australia do enough exercise to stay healthy, according to survey data that suggest that long workplace hours leave limited time for keeping fit.

Research involving more than 900 academics from dozens of universities across the two countries found that only 20.4 per cent of respondents in Australia and 18 per cent in the UK met the World Health Organisation guideline of two and a half hours of moderate aerobic activity each week. A similar proportion managed 90 minutes. In comparison, 55 per cent of Australian adults meet these benchmarks.

Despite this, more than half of respondents – 56.7 per cent in Australia, and 60.2 per cent in the UK – rated their physical health as being good or very good. And although nine out of 10 universities organise physical activities in the workplace to help keep their staff fit, an overwhelming majority of respondents – 77.4 per cent in Australia and 88.2 per cent in the UK – said that they had never taken part in them.

Researchers at Perth’s Murdoch University suggested that work was eroding academics’ will to work out. This was “perhaps not surprising” given the excess and often sedentary hours spent on the job, they report in the journal Studies in Higher Education.

The survey, conducted before the Covid-19 pandemic, covered a range of well-being, work and lifestyle issues. The results echoed previous findings that universities are tough places to be employed, with respondents typically working around 17 excess hours a week and scoring “significantly below population norms” on measures of psychological well-being.

Lead researcher Cathy Fetherston agreed that the findings were ironic given that education and health generally go hand in hand. But she doubted that academics were deluding themselves about their physical condition.

“They know what they need to do to maintain their health,” said Professor Fetherston, Murdoch’s head of nursing. “They are often commenting about their weight and diet and bemoaning the fact that they don’t do enough exercise, [but] they simply don’t have the time and energy to pursue it unless it’s a personal priority. [They say] it’s something I’ll do tomorrow or next week, and of course tomorrow and next week don’t come.”

The team warns that these problems are likely to escalate as Covid-19 accelerates “work-life merge”, a term coined in 2013 by then Facebook executive Emily White. “It is not enough to just encourage healthy lifestyle behaviours through well-being programmes when work pressures that lead to excessive work hours and work-life merge are likely to make participation difficult,” the paper notes.

The survey also found that most respondents considered academia a “calling” rather than a mere job. Professor Fetherston acknowledged that many academics exacerbated work-life merge, for example by unnecessarily monitoring work emails during downtime, but both external and “intrinsic” demands – academics’ high self-expectations – made such activities inevitable.

“It’s all very well to say: ‘I’ll just say no,’ but it probably goes against who you are and what you believe is important. It’s very demoralising when you can’t produce the quality of work you believe is required because of the pressure you’re under.”