by Dr Catherine Armstrong
In the last few years employers in all sectors have become increasingly aware of the need to address the work-life balance of their staff. This is an important phrase that can mean different things to different people. We must first define the term and then work out what the concept means to young academics starting out in their careers.
What is it?
The idea of maintaining a positive work-life balance is that staff members should be able to manage their working lives and control the amount of time they spend at work. This could involve flexible working arrangements such as job-share, or working from home where feasible. This actually benefits both employer and employee because the employer is able to hold on to its best staff by allowing them the opportunity to create the best working situations for themselves. As well as better retention rates employers are able to benefit from less absenteeism among their staff. And as their reputations increase for being a good employer, they will attract the best candidates to their vacancies. Implementing a work-life balance strategy can also be done for minimal cost, something else which makes it attractive to the company or institution concerned.
This has really become significant because households no longer have only one breadwinner. Child-care is shared between partners and women's working practices have changed drastically in the last few decades. This is also important for those who are not in traditional two-adult households too; single parents for instance or those caring for a sick or elderly relative.
So, what sort of measures might go towards building a decent work life balance?
There are two key elements: encouraging flexible working patterns and ensuring employees are maintaining a balanced lifestyle. Flexible working might involve: flexitime, fitting all work into four days a week, part time working, job sharing, working from home, working during school terms. To help employees maintain a healthy lifestyle, mentoring is very important as is holding appraisals regularly. Communication is key, if employees feel they cannot discuss their concerns, the measures will not work.
So, how does this fit into academic work? In a way, many of the recommendations for helping members of staff to achieve a better work life balance are already implemented in much of the university sector. Lecturers are not ‘required' to be in the office from 9am-5pm every working day, especially now that it is possible to consult with students and colleagues via email. Universities and other public sector work places often have decent maternity and sick leave packages to support members of staff in either of those circumstances. University holidays provide another opportunity for working from home should the family or personal needs dictate it. Depending on your academic field you should be able to decide when to travel to archives, conferences or workshops: your head of department (or line manager) will leave such decisions to you. Academic life certainly gives a degree of autonomy to the member of staff that the work-life balance idea strives to achieve for other types of workers.
However, other aspects of working in academia do not seem to fit the model. Many lecturers, especially junior members of staff, report that they have to work very long hours simply to keep their heads above water. With administrative tasks being increasingly heaped onto lecturers, the working day is expanding instead of contracting. Many people report working ten hours a day as well as at weekends. Although some of this can be done from home, it means that family life, self-improvement and so on can take a distant second place, which certainly contravenes the aims of the work-life balance ideal. Another problem is simply with the nature of academic work itself. Scholars are dedicated to furthering their knowledge in their subject and as such it is difficult to ‘switch off' from work. There is never a time when they are not musing on some new idea or approach, it might occur late one evening or at the weekend or on holiday. A dedicated scholar finds it very difficult to restrict ‘work' to certain times; the academic world does not fit neatly into the idea of the working week.
So, how to maintain a healthy work-life balance while being a successful academic? There are some initiatives that can help, such as the scheme for researchers at Bristol University: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/researchstaff/worklife/. They emphasise the importance of offering flexible working, but also trying to combat workplace stress. Childcare provision is offered and advertised thoroughly as is the opportunity to keep fit by joining the university's sports clubs. Overall the university places an emphasis on creating a positive working environment for all of its staff. This initiative includes monitoring and communication with all members of staff and offering conferences and development opportunities as well as guaranteeing to provide a safe environment for everyone.