The 24-Hour Workplace: Strategies For Maintaining Your Work-Life Balance

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The pressure is on all over: pressure to answer emails at all hours of the day and night, manage competing deadlines, work evenings and weekends. When it’s time-limited, like a few days of high-volume marking before an assessment board, most of us can handle it. But sometimes the 24-hour workplace can feel like a relentless time-thief. What can you do to slow down the pace without shortchanging students and colleagues?

Prioritise—and do it publicly.

The biggest obstacle to setting priorities tends to be managers who come up with new initiatives and expect staff not to drop everything else, but to add these alongside previously assigned duties.

When this happens, talk to your line manager. Your job description can be used as a guide. Make sure decisions are put in writing. 

One academic at a new university came up with a good solution: If the task directly affected student progression or retention, that was a priority every day but Friday, her research day. On Friday she prioritised tasks connected to her research. The right mix for you will depend on overall priorities at your institution.

It’s important to talk to colleagues about what you’re doing and why. Encouraging others to follow suit reduces stress for all.

Make sure you timetable activities that make the rest of your job worth it. For you, the motivator might be continued learning, time spent directly with students, or curriculum development. 

Set office hours.

Create and post times that students or colleagues can always find you at your desk, ready to talk. Make it clear that non-scheduled meetings are only available during these times.

You can apply this more broadly. Many academics wonder how certain colleagues consistently send their regrets to meetings we feel obliged to attend, with seemingly no consequences. It’s simple: they have made schedules for themselves and apply these to any obligation presented. None of us would skip teaching for a meeting, but why should we skip set office hours or our allotted research time?

Cut the electronic tether.

Smartphones, tablets and laptops carry the implicit understanding that you’ll be checking work emails off-campus. While flexibility in working hours and locations is one of the few perks remaining in academic life, these devices can start to rule your life. Set sensible limits, and back them up with the “Off” button. Your e-mail signature line and module guides could include words like:

“I endeavor to answer all emails from students within 72 hours during the work week. I may not see emails received after 7pm or on weekends until the following work day.”

Another less acknowledged issue is social media use during work hours. It’s OK to resist the modern compulsion to broadcast your thoughts via Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn daily. If pressure for this is coming from above, point out to the source that academics who use these tools to publicise their research or ideas regularly generally also spend an awful lot of time reading what others broadcast, particularly comments on their own posts. The amount of time spent on an activity that may or may not generate a higher public profile for that academic or their employer is not negligible. While useful, it can also be relegated to a short, set time.

Finally, those of us in management roles need to lead by example, and make sure we aren’t the cause of employee stress. The Health and Safety Executive’s line manager competency self-assessment tool is a surprisingly helpful guide to improving practice.

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