Work-life balance: the unicorn that is the 40 hour academic work week

In the first installment of the work-life balance discussion, I discussed the different levels of employment for university faculty and gave general information on the different functions they performed on a daily basis.  I also talked about how many of them work longer than 40 hours a week, including nights and weekends, and may even work summers without compensation.  For example, in a 1994 report, the American Association of University Professors reported that professors worked 48-52 hours per week, and this had increased to  53 hours by 2005.  Other sources over the past five years have reported more: 57 hours per week at a Canadian research institution, 50-60 hours per week in the UK.  But like with anything, work quantity does not equate to quality.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

For one thing, working long hours without sufficient weekly time off, or vacations, can significantly increase stress.  And this stress can lead to all sorts of different mental and physical problems.  Working long hours can interfere with our normal circadian rhythm– it can disrupt our sleep cycles, throw off our eating times and appetite, and make it difficult to exercise regularly.  Longer hours have been directly correlated with incidence of hypertension and other cardiovascular problems (also reviewed here).

Moreover, long work hours and work stress can negatively impact mental health (12, 3, 4), and increase the use of legal and illegal substances (reviewed here).  A study of work hours on over 330,000 participants in 61 countries found that working more than 48 hours a week was associated with heavy drinking in both men and women.  Stress, lack of sleep, and a subsequent difficulty paying attention can also increase the frequency of injury at work, and this injury rate directly relates to the increase in hours.  Jobs with overtime hours have been associated with as much as 61% more work-related injuries than those without.  In fact, there is so much research on stress, health, and occupation, that there are numerous journals solely dedicated to reporting on those findings: The International Journal of Stress Management, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, The Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, just to name a few.

 

Having a life makes us better employees

But for all that personal sacrifice, mounting evidence shows that a reduction in work hours is what promotes productivity, not a 24-hour work day.  Reducing weekly hours increased productivity as employees were less likely to be absent from work due to poor health (reviewed here).  Taking scheduled breaks instead of skipping them was also responsible for improving cognitive function in students.  Even brief diversions were shown to improve focus and cognitive function. Besides giving us a rest from our current task, or engaging our attention with something novel, taking a break allows us to daydream.  While this may seem like a waste of time, letting our minds wander activates different parts of our brain- including those involved in problem solving and creative thinking.  If you’ve ever come up with a brilliant solution while doing mundane tasks, then you’ve experienced this.  For my part, I tend to think of great ideas when I’m washing dishes or biking home.  Daydreaming, or taking a break, also helps release dopamine, a chemical neurotransmitter involved in movement, emotions, motivation, and rewards.  It’s very helpful in the creative process, as explained in a discussion of creativity in the shower.  Restful thinking also seems to be involved with promoting divergent thinking, emotional connectivity, and reading comprehension.

Going on regular annual vacations was correlated with a lower risk for coronary heart disease: not only are vacations great for reducing stress, but they also provide opportunities for more exercise, mental downtime, and creative outlets.  Mandatory time-off during nights and weekends for consultants resulted in a reported increase job performance, mental health, and attitude, though many said it was a struggle to enforce “time outs” from work in the beginning because they felt guilty about not working during their personal time.  This was seen again in a study of Staples managers who did not take scheduled breaks out of guilt.

It’s this persistent feeling that you should be working at home, and that you could be doing more, which is largely reported by “driven” employees and workaholics.  This feeling has lately been coined “tele-pressure“.  It’s particularly invasive these days as you have access to work emails and other communications via smart phones, laptops, or tablets.  In fact, by syncing many of these devices, your attention is compelled by multiple simultaneous electronic signals and vibrations whenever someone contacts you.  It’s no wonder we can’t shut off at the end of the day. (And for the record, I wrote this on a Sunday evening.)

More important than knowing that taking regular breaks and vacations will help manage your stress and improve your productivity, is remembering that you are entitled to it.  We have labor laws for a reason, and you are entitled to your nights, weekends, and your X number of weeks a year.  You are entitled to stay home when you are sick, or whenever you feel like it.  It’s your personal time, take it.

So, if you’re in academia, what do you do to unwind?  Leave me some comments!

 

Photo courtesy of Lee Warren.

3 thoughts on “Work-life balance: the unicorn that is the 40 hour academic work week

  1. Even part time work at a college can soak up your free time. I try and walk once or twice a day [outside when possible, on treadmill in bad weather]; cook/eat healthy food [limit junk food]; and plan vacations months in advance [planning gives you something to look forward to]. I generally attempt to socialize with people who have a positive outlook on life and work. Finally, I tell my students that I will NOT be answering emails over weekends and on vacation days. In addition, I promise NOT to email or otherwise bother them on weekends or vacation days!

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