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.


  1. As an early-career researcher, I have been allocated an academic mentor who (when asked about work-life balance) informed me that he worked until 10pm-midnight most days, but now had weekends off as he had young children.

    He told me I shouldn't take him as an example of work-life balance!

    I wanted to come to this discussion, but I was in a post-work meeting. Which shows that I should have been there really...

  2. I'm sorry I couldn't make it to the discussion session last week - I was working!

    When I wondered about the holidays question in the past, I've found the guidance at very helpful. This refers to guidance from the UK Research Councils - students they sponsor "may, subject to the agreement of their supervisors, take reasonable holidays, not exceeding eight weeks in the year (including public holidays)" and goes on to suggest that this could be used as a guide for all full-time research students.

    I very much agree with your comments about the important role of thinking in research and that this never switches off. In my experience, casual conversations can also often provide key insights into particular research problems on all sorts of levels from the very practical to the more conceptual.

  3. Great thoughts you got there, believe I may possibly try just some of it throughout my daily life.

    PhD research guidance