Hard-working… or working too hard?

Last week, Mary Beard (classicist, academic and commentator) asked via twitter how many hours a week academics of any level of seniority reckoned they worked.

She stated that the current estimate for herself was over 100 hours. She wanted to know what was normal.

Soon this tweet had been liked nearly 1500 times, retweeted 310 times and commented on over 660 times. It provoked reactions from academics and non-academics alike – ranging from the sympathetic to the incredulous and indignant, and passing through some disbelief along the way.

Long hours culture

Some comments lamented the fact that by the middle of the working week, they had reached or exceeded the EU working time directive. Others were grateful that the issue around working hours had been raised by such a high profile academic. Further comments raged about worker exploitation and there were even questions around what counts as work.

There is no doubt that many comments posted indicated the existence of a difficult culture within higher education founded upon excessive working hours, and of a resigned feeling from some quarters that this was just how it had to be. Clearly, Mary Beard’s tweet struck a chord.

Making a positive change

What was heartening – was the number of responses that described where individuals had made a positive decision to change and reign in their working hours in order to ensure they reached a balance in terms of time spent working and time spent doing other things. At the risk of being labelled a “humblebragger”, I reported that my working hours were in no way near 100 a week. I estimated they were nearer to 50 – 55, and was quite clear that I worked better because I do other things outside of work.

For me, achieving some sort of work-life balance is absolutely key for being productive at work and for retaining a healthy disposition mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. The great thing was that I was not alone and this gave me hope for our sector, where the danger of not being able to set a manageable workloads is all too real.

Some comments like this referenced the need to prioritise time with family over work, others spoke of a refusal to be taken advantage of, of needing to function better as a partner or carer, some focussed on wanting to be present for others they are close too, of knowing when to prioritise “me” time, and of the need to model healthy behaviour to colleagues.

A need for real leadership

So there were some glimmers of hope, suggesting that some across the higher education sector were trying really hard to get the balance right and that they were working within environments where this seemed achievable.

But it is clear that more needs to be done – and I suggest that this can only be achieved through cultural change, led from the top and beginning with behavioural change.

There is no doubt that our leaders set the tone for working culture. If your line manager is still in their office next door to yours (or filling your email inbox) at 8pm at night, clearly it may feel hard for you to slip away at 5pm. So senior managers must set an example and actively demonstrate that it’s ok to go home at a reasonable hour. We could also perhaps be more open about talking about life outside of work – it shows that there are other things that we love and value beyond work, be they activities, places or people.

I enjoyed a recent publication from Minerva and Wonkhe which debunks the myth of the heroic leader who lives to work. A more grounded and human style of leadership needed. One recommendation is for vice-chancellors to actively champion personal wellbeing – behaviour that must become more mainstreamed and normalised for our sector. Critically, we must as leaders avoid the trap of assuming that the accrual of long work hours is a good thing.

Yes, it may indicate extremely hard work, but it may not necessarily be useful, productive, and positive work. Academic leaders should practice operating within a balanced framework that embraces all aspects of life, and modelling hard-working behaviours that exemplify diligence, energy, and a commitment to champion balance and reasonableness in all that we do and in all that we expect of others.

2 responses to “Hard-working… or working too hard?

  1. Working harder for longer is likely to be a failed strategy for both students academics and professional support staff. I completely agree with Claire Taylor on how important it should be for everyone to aim to achieve a life/work balance.

    It *has* to be modelled by leaders and managers, in fact a key factor in workplace well-being is that the leadership have to be seen to care about well-being. Dame Carol Black outlined a number of key learning points in her lecture earlier this year [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kj8GfVJtCgY&t=2381s] including the health of the line manager impacted on the health and well-being of the employee positively or negatively as per their own positive or negative health.

    In my work with an increasing number of organisations in HE and beyond, workplace well-being is increasingly important for success. Doing ‘more with less’ is increasingly resulting in less done by more and the similarities for students and staff in terms of well-being challenges [mental illness, sleep issues, financial worries and substance issues] underline the need for a whole institution approach.

    As a PVC once shrewdly observed, “In spite of being a learning organisation, we’re not very good at learning”. University communities can model and achieve mentally healthy status but it will need work, investment and the willingness to change throughout. It will become a distinctive edge very soon to be able to retain and maintain students and staff, if it is not already the case.

  2. This is an important topic. Thanks for raising it. In my position in professional services, I regularly see academic staff burnt out. Excessive workload also makes it difficult to achieve institutional change – staff are simply too overloaded. The solution to this doesn’t just lie in senior leadership modelling good practice – though that is important – but in universities doing accurate estimates of the amount of time academic activity and especially new projects and initiatives actually take (and acting accordingly in terms of resourcing).

    At the risk of sounding critical, if 55 hours a week is – as is sort of being implied in the article – a model to aim for, the sector clearly has a major problem. That’s an 11 hour day over 5 days, or requires weekend working. It’s 7 hours – basically a whole working day – more than the maximum stipulated by the Working Time Regulations and enshrined in law.

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