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Work-Life Balance; is it realistic?

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I must admit that this is topic I have struggled with for a while, both mentally and practically, and I am sure many people are trying to find the right balance. But is there one?

These are the rambling thoughts of a University academic, but I suspect apply to many other professions. So before we dive into it, what exactly does an academic do?

Well, we do a lot of things. Management like to divide our workloads up into ratios based on time spent doing research, undergraduate teaching or administration. Currently my ratio is 50:35:15 on research, teaching and administration. So what do I with this time?

I teach undergraduate classes. I wouldn’t consider myself to have a heavy teaching load but it takes time (some academics teach far more). Not just the contact hours, but also lecture preparation, the tutorials, the marking, the questions from students (I convene a course of 70) … it all adds up … quickly.

We also do research. I run a reasonable size lab with a variety of projects. At the time of preparing this blog, I supervise (manage) 2-3 postdocs, 6 or so PhD students, an Honours student and a visiting student from abroad. I don’t have a lab technician. Those of you who are aware of the whims of grant success know lab numbers can fluctuate widely, but I would average around 8-11 people at any point in time. Each of these people has project that needs to be overseen. That means weekly/fortnightly meetings with each lab member and it means having your door open most of the time to answer “Just a quick question. How do you …”. I am fortunate that at the moment I have a very talented postdocs that can help with the technical aspects of the projects, but the simple process of project oversight and making sure things are on track is not trivial.

Doing research also means preparing and writing grants. A 10-page grant prepared from scratch for the Australian Research Council would take a few weeks – full time. There would rarely be a time of the year when I not preparing a funding application of some sort – not all take weeks to prepare, but they all take time. And of course with funding comes reporting. Most sources of funding I currently have in the lab require annual reports that need to be approved prior to receiving next year’s funding allocation i.e. you need to spend significant time on them and do them properly.

And not only do the projects need to be overseen, but each person in the lab needs to be managed. This not only takes a physical toll in terms of time, but also mentally as you are often drawn in to personal situations. Good people manage themselves and are a godsend to those of us in these situations. However, and for whatever reason, occasionally we take someone on we shouldn’t have – and we pay for it, both in terms of time, and also emotionally. Remember that most academics aren’t trained as people managers, we typically learn as we go.

The last component to my working life is administration. To say that this is the least enamoured aspect to an academic’s life would be understatement. Forms, meetings, committees etc are all something we grumble about, but understand (at least to some level) that it has to happen. To put it mildly, I think it is rare when I wouldn’t spend at least the allocated 15% of my time on administration (to say the least).

And apparently, this is all supposed to be achieved in a 35-hour working week. Is it achieved? Of course not, and academics (as I am sure is the case with many other professions) routinely far exceed the hours expected during a working week. We typically do so without grumbling as we know (hope!) that it is for the betterment of our own careers.

So now to the life part of this work-life balance rant – we all have lives outside of work. I am lucky enough to have a very special wife and two beautiful daughters who I adore spending time with. We all play numerous sports (we’re all obsessed with golf!), go to the gym and do a variety of other activities together. Needless to say, there is rarely a quiet moment in the house!

So how does “life” balance with “work”? Frankly, it doesn’t. As explained above, the 35-hour working week is about as realistic as the Wallabies regularly beating the All Blacks i.e. it isn’t. So what isn’t completed during work hours must be done away from the office. And whilst I far spend far more than 35 hours per week at work, work regularly comes home with me. By the time you get home, have dinner, interact with your family, clean up etc, its 8pm or so. Given the age of my daughters, this gives me about an hour or so with them prior to bed. Then I typically need to deal with the emails and other outstanding items I haven’t had a chance to look at during the day (imagine the wonderful life without email!!). So we’re now at 9.30-10pm …

So what is the result of this? Put simply for me at least, stress. I have personally struggled over the last year dealing with the amount of work I am expected to get through and the overwhelming desire to spend more time with my family. I haven’t been able to find the right balance – I don’t feel even close. Without any doubt this has affected my mental state and I know within myself that I haven’t been the person at home that I was in previous years. My family know this too. I have little doubt that it has also affected my physical health.

But no more, this simply can’t continue and it horrifies me to think what the future holds if it does. I won’t live my life like this any longer. It isn’t fair to my family and it is not fair on me. My girls won’t always be at the age where they want to spend time with their dad – I essentially “missed” last year and that won’t happen again.

But what is the solution? It’s easy to say I am going to spend more time with my family and work less, but how? There won’t be any less work to do this year, or any other future years for that matter. And it has to be said that I do enjoy what I do, immensely - I feel very privileged to be an academic/scientist. So for the sake of both “work” and “life”, I need to redress this balance. Well, I am going to try a couple of things that aren’t mutually exclusive and may seem obvious, but I will list them below simply to get it clear in my own head.

Better manage how much I take on. As an academic, you are continually asked to be involved in various service activities (both internal and external). This typically includes reviewing papers and grants, acting on advisory boards, Editorial positions for journals, examining postgraduate students, and the list goes on and on. And the more successful you are, the more requests you will get. If I look at the past year, I have simply accepted too many of these invitations. I feel like I should as essentially it is community service – if you don’t do it, who will? It’s taken me a while but I am beginning to realise that you can’t do everything …

Identify what “deadlines” are critical. In this age of instant communication, we are inundated with demands to have things completed/submitted by a certain time. As my wife can attest, I am quite obsessed with being on time so I have always taken deadlines seriously. But how important are these deadlines? Some deadlines are critical i.e. grant submission deadlines. Many others aren’t and I think it is important to realise that.

Understanding that “you can only do what you can do”. This is more to help my mental state rather than actually balancing the workload. I am slowly learning not to stress about not achieving/completing as much as I thought I should. There are only so many (working!) hours in a day and rather than stress about not having finished everything, I am getting more comfortable with the mind-set that I will simply pick it up tomorrow morning.

I will confess that I have written this blog partly for therapeutic reasons, but also to perhaps open other people’s eyes to this issue. I know from discussions with colleagues that I am certainly not in the minority feeling this way and I think it’s important that it’s discussed openly.

The suggestions above aren’t new or novel, but perhaps sometimes need to be reinforced. Personally, I think by sticking with these few simple rules, the balance will drift closer to where it should be leaving everyone happier as a result. Who knows, I may even end up being more productive!

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