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.

Work-life balance: what do professors do?

Outside the academic world, there is a lot of misconception about what faculty and university personnel actually do and when.  While this varies by position, university faculty have a variable mix of teaching, research, advising students, grant writing, administration of grant budgets and workloads for persons working in the lab, being on institutional committees (curriculum planning, graduate student committees, candidate search committees), and community outreach (presentations, generating informative publications for the general public, etc.).  As universities have sought to increase student populations while decreasing faculty, this has led to an ever-increasing number of hours spent working.

The Academic Ladder

To understand the problem with workloads, we must first understand the positions generally available.  It’s taken for granted that graduate students will work more than 40 hours per week.  Graduate teaching assistants are paid a stipend to teach a certain number of credits per semester, and generally their tuition is covered by the department they are teaching for, although this does not always include university fees and health insurance.  At the University of Vermont as a GTA, I still paid around $1,200 per semester, despite having my tuition and some of my student health insurance comped.  As a graduate research assistant, a research grant pays your stipend and, potentially, your tuition.  Either way, you are taking classes and expected to do your own research, and it is very difficult to excel at all aspects while try to only work 40 hours per week.

Post-doctoral researchers have attained their Ph.D., and are specializing in an area of research.  Often, PhDs go from post-doc position to post-doc position waiting for a professorship in their field to open up.  Depending on the positions, post-docs also have to write their own grants, and may have to teach, although this is often unpaid.  In 2005, post-docs in the US reported working an average of 51 hours per week, diluting their salary until their effective hourly pay was lower than Harvard janitorial staff.  As reported in the study, average post-doctoral salary ($38k/year) was also less than the average salary of someone working outside of academia with only a bachelor’s degree ($45k/year), and much less than those with professional degrees ($72k/year).

From there, a variety of academic positions available, but these generally fall into three tiers: assistant, associate, and (full) professor.  For example, if you are a research professor, you do not have to teach and often do not mentor students outside of your graduate students, and you can be at the level of assistant-, associate-, or (full) research professor depending on your years of experience.  These are almost always non-tenured positions, meaning you work by contract, and you often have to fund your own salary through grants.  There are also adjunct professors, as well as lecturers or instructors.  Like research professors, they perform fewer functions (generally just teaching and advising), and have short-term contracts.  Adjunct positions are part-time with no benefits, while lecturers are full-time and come with benefits, and their prevalence in research universities is increasing.

Traditional faculty positions, on the other hand, have salaries paired through the department, and are contracted for longer periods of time.  You can also be at the level of assistant, associate, or (full) professor, and you may also apply for tenure.  Tenure is a permanent contract with the university, and it is a grueling review in which all of your career moves are carefully examined by a panel of your peers.  The idea behind tenure is that once it is awarded, you cannot be fired except under special circumstances, allowing you to pursue less trendy and more daring research topics.  Tenure is not awarded lightly, and assistant (or associate) faculty spend years trying to accomplish as much as possible, such that they are driven to work longer hours. Faculty without tenure reported working an average of 56 hours per week, which is likely driven by assistant professors that reported working 56 hours per week.

All of these positions may be offered as 9 (September to May) or 12 month appointments, meaning you are only paid for working that many months.  There is a perception that faculty don’t work in the summer, and that’s because those 9 month appointments are not required to work.  However, most take the opportunity to catch up on research or generating teaching materials, and many academics report working longer hours in the summer.  While you might be awarded grant money to pay salary for the three months of summer that you spend catching up on research, many academics will end up working uncompensated just to keep up.

Responsibilities

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In a preliminary study by anthropologist Dr. John Ziker, called Time Allocation Workload Knowledge Study (TAWKS), 30 professors from Boise State University were asked to recall everything they had done over the past 24 hours.  Participants reported an average of 61 hours per week spent working, including about 10 hours on the weekend.  The breakdown of their job functions is below:

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TAWKS preliminary data, Dr. John Ziker

 

Other studies report similar findings, with an average 53 hours per week spent on all activities, and a breakdown as such:

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Link et al. 2008, Economics of Education Review

This seems to be skewed towards assistant professors:

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Link et al. 2008, Economics of Education Review

as well as non-tenured faculty:

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Link et al. 2008, Economics of Education Review

 

As I mentioned, professors are responsible for teaching, research, advising students, grant writing, administration of grant budgets and workloads for persons working in the lab, institutional committees (curriculum planning, graduate student committees, candidate search committees), and community outreach (presentations, generating informative publications for the general public, etc.).  Here is a very long list that one professor made of their responsibilities.  Enrollment in college has increased over the past few decades, but faculty hires have not kept pace: there are an average of 16 fewer staff members per 1,000 full-time students in 2012 than there was in 2000.  While the number of faculty positions in the US has increased numerically, this growth has been overwhelmingly in part-time hires, with a 121% increase from 1990 to 2012 as compared to a 41% increase in full-time hires.  The increasing number of students, expansion of faculty responsibilities, and the rise in part-time employees who often travel to multiple universities in a day for work have pushed staff and faculty to work longer hours, yet this does not always translate into better quality of work, as some work functions take priority over others over time.

In the follow-up segment, I’ll discuss the importance of time off and finding a work-life balance (as I write this on evenings and weekends), and how this contributes to reduced stress, as well as improved health, productivity, quality of work, and quality of life.

If you’re in academia, what do you do on a daily basis?  Leave me some comments!