Four ways to achieve a better work-life balance in academia

Switching off can be a considerable challenge for those working in higher education, even though it is essential for a work-life balance and well-being

Rushana Khusainova's avatar
21 Feb 2024
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Working in higher education has many benefits. More flexibility and autonomy are among them. However, the very nature of the work often means we feel under a lot of pressure to perform and deliver “business as usual”­­ while also engaging in a variety of activities that fall beyond the scope of our roles. In addition to this, colleagues seeking promotion are often expected to consistently operate at a higher level than their grade to eventually move up the career ladder. I call this phenomenon “upshifting”.

There is a well-documented culture of over-work and heroism in the higher education sector, where teaching must go on no matter what, which has resulted in a crisis of employee well-being, staff retention and even workplace happiness.

Why is it so hard to navigate work-life balance in academia?

Working hard and being productive is essential to getting things done. However, there is a big difference between being productive and being busy. There is a certain badge of honour associated with being busy that can contribute to the already strong culture of over-work.

Then, of course, there is a fear of missing out. Indeed, opportunities might arise when we are not checking emails. However, it’s important to focus on the bigger picture and the importance of taking time off for enhanced well-being in the long run. Here are some ways to achieve a better work-life balance in academia without feeling guilty about it.

Manage boundaries

Ensure you create healthy, clear boundaries around your work schedule. For example, having an out-of-hours reply that signposts the reader to information they might need and details the times you are in the office will help you to feel at peace when you’ve logged off for the day.

Switching off all notifications can prevent the temptation to reply to work-related messages. “I have developed a habit of switching off all work-related apps (Outlook and Teams, for example) once I finish my hours for the day even if I haven’t completed all tasks as planned,” says Lenara Urazaeva, deputy student administration manager at the University of Bristol. “Work can wait until the next day but my mental health won’t…”

Embrace exercise and movement

Exercise offers a wealth of benefits both physical and mental. It can also be an excellent way of engaging in something very different from your work. Setting time aside for it allows you to step away from work tasks and revisit them with a fresh perspective.

“I have always prioritised sport and exercise… because it was part of me long before I was also a mother and an academic. It hasn’t always been easy to carve out time to ride my bike or lift weights, but now I am reaping the benefits because my children see that you don’t have to choose a simple identity based on one thing – being a researcher or lecturer. People are beautifully complex,” says Fiona Spotswood, associate professor in marketing and consumption and head of the marketing and consumption group at the University of Bristol.

Be introspective

Scientists have long proved that the human brain cannot multitask. Instead, it switches between tasks – a process that takes up a lot of mental energy. Single-tasking, reflecting on experiences and engaging in introspection can really help you to gain clarity and perspective. Do this by reminding yourself of your personal values. Philosopher and psychologist John Dewey said: “We do not learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience.” As such, we all need some downtime to engage in introspection and make sense of the world around us.

Make peace with missing out occasionally

Accepting the reality of a demanding job is essential to living a more balanced life, according to Olivier Sibai, lecturer in marketing at Birkbeck University. “It’s a continuous work of reminding myself of what my priorities in life are, accepting that some actions or projects that seem essential and urgent will need to be postponed, accepting that some collaborators will sometimes be disappointed and accepting that working in this way will close off certain career opportunities,” he says. This is not easy, but essential for a happier life in academia.

Switching off might feel like a guilty pleasure, but it’s absolutely essential for long-term productivity and well-being. It’s also a skill we can develop by putting in place relevant support mechanisms, such as out-of-hours replies, shutting down email and messenger apps when not working and taking time to exercise.

Rushana Khusainova is a senior lecturer at the University of Bristol.

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