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Workaholic academics need to stop taking pride in their burnout

Written by: Fleur Jongepier, Mathijs van de Sande
Published on: 4 Mar 2021

Illustration of office worker caught in clock hands

Source: Getty

Ask any academic how they like to spend their free time and they’ll probably give you a wry smile. There’s no such thing as free time − not really. Free time is for getting email done, for grading, for preparing lectures, for submitting overdue referee reports. An academic weekend is having Sunday afternoon off.

The Dutch have a painfully accurate idiom to describe what academics are expected to be: sheep with five legs. Academics must not only be good − no, excellent − at research (that is, get as many papers published as possible), they must also teach loads (and make sure to get good student evaluations), engage in science communication, supervise (PhD) students, exercise leadership, sit on committees and attend numerous meetings.

Furthermore, academics need to be unbelievably thick-skinned: they must be able to bear nasty, even brutal, comments from peers, and they are likely to witness or be the victim of academic bullying, harassment and sexual intimidation − women especially.

The outcomes range from being unable to relax in the evenings or find enjoyment in cooking, reading, sports or time for a social life to suffering from (mental) health problems such as sleeping disorders, heart problems, alcoholism, anxiety and depression.

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The consequences for anyone not yet in the academic business are less visible but no less alarming. Students confronted with the chronic bags under the eyes of their overworked mentors, hearing how they live their lives, are quickly discouraged.

Particularly worrying is that the enthusiasm and hopes of those from less privileged positions are the first to be extinguished, such as students with part-time jobs or caring responsibilities, or those who’ve had their fair share of sexism or racism to deal with. Improving academic working conditions has everything to do with making academia more inclusive and diverse.

It’s not news that something needs to change − academics have been protesting for quite some time. Often, such protests are directed higher up at the institutional level, and understandably so. In many countries, the academic workload is so high because of government cuts in higher education and increasing student numbers.

But without wanting to engage in “academic victim blaming”, we also need to look at ourselves. And by “ourselves”, we specifically mean academics high and dry on permanent contracts.

So, what can they do?

Here’s a (not so) small list: make a real effort to work only the hours you’re paid for (and let the shit hit the fan from time to time); go on holidays (and stay true to your auto reply); avoid bragging about how busy you are (often a twisted form of virtue signalling); leave meetings early to pick up your kids, go on a date or visit friends (and be open about having a life); don’t hire the workaholic with huge publication lists but the team player who wouldn’t be a passive bystander; tell your students that academic excellence, or writing a PhD thesis, does not require 60- let alone 80-hour workweeks; tell them that academia needs people who have rich non-academic lives. And last but not least, publish less and complain more to those in positions of power.

This is all easier said than done. Still, making progress on the list is not impossible; it just entails costs and a certain risk. Yes, you will apply for fewer grants (increasing the chances of those without permanent contracts or research time). Yes, some student evaluations may be just fine (rather than “excellent”, God forbid). Yes, you will publish less. (But didn’t you once say: “Quality over quantity”?) And no doubt you’re likely to become a little less “successful” or “competitive”, according to some standards. 

Saying no, complaining, asking annoying questions and demanding compensation we’re never going to get − if we all do it − not only might make those above us reach out to those above them, it will also send a message that the state of academia is unacceptable. It sends the message that we want to be academics and have private lives, that we want to be able to do our research, be inspired and be intellectually passionate in normal working hours. It’s crucial for those watching us to baulk at the status quo.

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Of course, one may object that none of this results in structural change in the long run. What is the use of complaining when it does not lead to more public funds for higher education, more jobs in academia and better career prospects for young academics (those in less privileged positions, in particular)?

Indeed, maybe it won’t. But the problem is that none of this will ever materialise if we keep pretending that we’re just about coping. We can protest, petition or even strike as much as we like, but if we continue to do all that is expected of us on a daily basis, institutional expressions of discontent are not likely to have any effect, either. We need to do both, simultaneously: engage in structural protest and refuse the status quo on the smaller scale.

It is precisely by getting their priorities straight that established academics can, and must, become better role models and set a better example. Hence, we specifically call on academics on permanent contracts to help carry this burden, to be fierce and unapologetic in defence of a better work-life balance, to start rebuilding academia for those who maybe − just maybe − still dream of it.  

Fleur Jongepier is an amateur photographer, an assistant professor of ethics at Radboud University Nijmegen and the co-chair of her university’s Young Academy, an institute aiming to improve working conditions, diversity and social safety in academia. Mathijs van de Sande is a parent, amateur trombonist and assistant professor of political philosophy at Radboud University Nijmegen, where he is also a member of the university council.