Friday, 20 April 2012

Work-life balance: is it possible?

At the April meeting of the researchers' group, Ana Rosa (who has blogged on her thesis topic here) led a discussion on the important and perennially problematic issue of work-life balance in academia.  As the meeting took place during the Easter vacation, attendance was somewhat lower than usual, leading me to suspect that many colleagues were busy having a work-life balance elsewhere - although whether they were working or living remains an unanswered question.

The issue had come to the fore when seeking to discover what was considered an 'appropriate' amount of holiday for research students to take.  No guidelines were available from the university or in the research students' handbook; instead, the term 'work-life balance' was used, which some students felt to be a vague and unhelpful term. 

The group felt that 'holidays' and 'work-life balance' were actually quite separate concepts, and that guidelines on the former would be helpful, but that the latter was impossible to legislate for.  Indeed, academic staff in the UK often have a notoriously poor work-life balance, despite having set amounts of annual leave.  Moreover, the issue is complicated by the difficulty of defining what constitutes 'work' in academia.  While some activities are obviously 'work', such as research, teaching and administration, what about checking email, social media, Second Life, or reading a relevant novel?  Am I 'working' while writing this blog?  It could further be argued that the primary role of academics engaged in research is (or should be) to think - an activity which is not measurable, and which cannot be switched on or off at will.  If I sit in the department all day struggling with a thorny research problem, and then the solution comes to me later on in the pub, was I working a) while in the department; b) while in the pub; or c) both?

The group concluded that guidelines on an appropriate amount of holiday would be useful, and that supervisors should talk about this - and about work-life balance more generally - with their research students.  This issue is important to well-being, and the university provides a helpful publication and training days for academics who need to signpost students to appropriate support services.