Work-Life Balance: How many hours should you work?

     
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by Dr Catherine Armstrong

The issue of work-life balance in the academic world has become more important in recent years. Employers now recognise that forcing staff to overwork leads to an unhealthy working environment and a high turnover of staff, not to mention disgruntled employees. Universities have now put programmes and initiatives in place to encourage staff to take personal time away from their jobs in their working week in order to develop themselves in other areas. This might involve starting new hobbies, learning a new skill, or simply having the chance to spend time with the family. An example of this is Manchester Metropolitan’s Mind, Body & Spirit events programme which encourages its staff to take personal development classes that are not related to work, such as language learning, sport and dance, arts and crafts, meditation and aromatherapy.

Other work-life balance initiatives directly relate to the working conditions of staff, such as allowing staff to work from home where appropriate.

These initiatives are supported by a recent Harvard University survey entitled ‘New Generations, New Priorities: the experience of Generation X faculty’. The survey interviewed 12 younger members of university faculty staff (i.e. the academic staff) and found out what their priorities were in their careers.

What did the survey find?

The respondents highlighted several interesting points. First, they did not want to work more than about nine hours per day and felt that it was possible to hold down an academic post by doing this. In fact, they argued that working more than 9 hours may lead to ‘diminishing returns’.

A second interesting conclusion was that this attitude was unique to the new generation of staff coming through (the younger members of the departments who had most recently received their doctorates). They identified older staff members as being happy to work longer hours and finding it difficult to say ‘no’ to more work.

Those interviewed also said that they were less likely to move long distances with their families to find new and better jobs. Having put down roots at one university, they would try to stay there for the long-term. Job-hopping held little attraction for these academics.

Generation gap?

The survey interviewed faculty members of the younger generation (i.e. those born between 1964 and 1980) and examined their unique approach to working, career prospects and work-life balance. They declared that they saw no actual generation clash with other colleagues, but they definitely highlighted some key differences in approach.

When the results of this survey were posted on the Chronicle website it produced a flurry of responses from those for whom this survey’s findings really did not seem accurate. Some posters commented that although younger and untenured staff might seem to leave after ‘jetting in’ to the department to do only a few hours teaching, they are actually working as hard, if not harder, than their older, tenured counterparts behind the scenes.

The job market is especially challenging for scholars at the start of their careers because they are expected to gain teaching experience (including all the preparation and marking) at the same time as publishing a number of articles or a book emerging from their doctorate, planning a new research project, and applying for research grants. Unlike tenured academics in permanent positions, they often do not get recognised with pay for these non-teaching activities.

Work long or work smart?

The other interesting response to this was the issue of working hours. Unsurprisingly, many people would say that they feel they work too hard and would enjoy taking a few hours off per week! Some people commenting on the article felt that those who were concerned about working fewer hours are not putting 100% into their work. And, of course, there are many other jobs that involve working long hours: doctors, nurses and school teachers are just such professions.

Most agreed that it was possible to use technology to ‘work smarter’ in order to prepare and present lectures in a shorter time, or streamline record keeping, for example. But there is also the necessity of getting your hard work noticed by your bosses. In every work place, there are those who wish to progress up the career ladder, and make the effort to be seen as being dedicated to the job. Leaving early if a task is complete or occasionally working from home should be an acceptable part of the work culture, but often it is not.

One of the study’s most important findings is that a good work-life balance is essential to job happiness. The key to achieving this is having strict boundaries on what is personal and family time so as to be able to switch off and say ‘no’ to work demands once in a while..

For more on this study please see Collaborative on Careers in Higher Education.

 


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