Is work life balance in academia the problem or am I the problem?

Blog written on 30 December 2014 and posted on: 07 January 2015.

A quality I value in other people is frankness. Frankness is also the lens I see myself (or at least I try to). Today it was through this lens that I realised, while out running, that I am a hypocrite when it comes to work life balance. My run was normal in all other respects except that it had snowed the previous day and the snow was starting to turn into ice on the paths.

I was in Australia recently and for the few months previously I have been thinking a lot about work life balance, what it means to be an academic and what I might need to give up in order to be successful. Since then I have returned from Australia to Germany. I have had a three weeks off and have been quite lazy. Today this laziness helped to put a few things into perspective and I realised three things about work life balance:

  1. I swing between two extreme states of work and life (aka laziness or downtime) and I do not like either state,
  2. most people struggle with work life balance, and
  3. how I respond to being busy or lazy defines how I feel about it.

I have been reading about work life balance, started writing a blog about it, talked to friends about it, brought it up as a discussion point at an Early Career Research day and a postgrad discussion group, brought it up in job interviews and a few other random places as well. It is something that I have been thinking a lot about.

If I made new years resolutions then finding the balance would probably come in number two, number one would be reserved for running more.

I spent five and a half weeks in Australia during November and December. To get over the jet lag and spend time with family first my husband and I took a little over a week off. During this time we also both graduated with our PhDs. My graduation even appeared in the local newspaper see the article here.

After that I worked with my old research group for a week and a bit. I also attended a workshop. I then had another week off spending time visiting my family in rural Australia.

It was a productive time. I gave a seminar, a poster presentation, had three post-doc interviews and a number of meetings. During this time I was thinking about work life balance and how I would change my approach to it.

I have been thinking so much about my own experience and of people around me, most are academics too, that I was not considering other professions. So the reason I feel like I am delusional when it comes to work life balance as an academic is because, until recently, I believed that committing to a career as an academic meant committing to career first and life second.

Little did I realise that everyone struggles with their workload. People in other professions, with similar experience, look pretty stressed too and are working on the weekends as well. So academics, industry and the government are all working long hours.

I have created an image of a career based on observed and perceived external pressure. But I suspect I would feel the same in other professions.

This made me think: Is work life balance in academia the problem or am I the problem? It would seem like I am the problem or at least a large contributing factor. But I also feel being proactive about finding the balance is important. But this issue I will save for a separate blog.

If I were to choose a career other than academics would I still feel like I don't have a good balance? I think I would. From what I can tell it is a problem for almost everyone. Some people manage it well and others don't. Some people feel it more strongly than others. People who don't feel it as much appear to be proactive in managing their time or love their job so much that they want to work all the time. Others find themselves in jobs that do not challenge them to the same extent.

Recently I have been thinking that academia is a difficult career with a community in which it is okay (possibly encouraged) to work on the weekend and do long hours. But this is more likely a reflection on the population as a whole and not just in academic circles. I have envied people (any myself in previous positions) who leave their desk on Friday at 5pm and free their mind from their work and upcoming deadlines.

But if I had this type of job I am not sure I would have job satisfaction. Would I still enjoy my work or have pride in it, would I be challenged, would I feel like I was using my strengths and living up to my potential? I don't think that I would.

Next time I feel stressed about how much I have to do, about how hard I am working or feel run down, I will remind myself that academia is not doing this to me, I am, and I can choose to change my behaviour.

I worry, sometimes complain, about how much work is expected of me, which ironically I expect of myself rather than external pressure. But I know that I can decide for myself what the limit is. I just need to work out what my limit and expectations are. Then decide if they are realistic.

I have taken the last three weeks off. There has been a little bit of work to keep on top of things but no research. So I have had mostly the life part of work life balance. I have watched movies, some tv series and hung out at home. It was also Christmas time so I have been sharing my time with my husband and friends as well.

This free time, which I had previously been craving, is now boring to me. I feel lazy (both in my body and my brain). I feel the need to get back to work. In this respect I feel even more like a hypocrite because I can take time off, my work will wait for me and I want to get back to work cause I enjoy it.