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Academic Work-Life Balance: 5 Ideas to Achieve It

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The confluence of pressures on leaders in the university community dates back decades.  As universities slowly progress to a post-COVID world, the challenges felt years earlier in striking a work-life balance seem more daunting than ever.  A 2021 publication from the National Library of Medicine noted that “research focused on higher education has revealed that poor work-life balance can result in lower productivity and impact, stifled academic entrepreneurship,” and result in ”lower organizational commitment and greater levels of burnout.”  Is a work-life balance possible in academia? It depends on whom you ask.

Dr. Karen Kelsky, a former department head at the Universities of Oregon and Illinois, started a blog about academia in 2011. She wrote, “Since opening The Professor Is In, the question I’ve been most often asked by women is, ‘How can I maintain some kind of work-life balance while pursuing a career in academia?’”

Harvard professor Radhika Nagpal, in an article in Scientific American, said the way to do so is “to find a way to manage your work and your private life in such a way that you feel happy about both and at the same time maintain your health.”

University Faculty Survey Results

The majority of respondents to Times Higher Education’s first major global survey of university staff’s views on their work-life balance said they are overworked and underpaid. They also believe their careers had a detrimental impact on their relationships with their friends, families, and partners.

Among the poll’s primary findings:

  • The majority of staff would recommend their job to their children, despite the fact that most academics and a significant proportion of other staff report working well beyond their contracted hours, including during weekends and holidays.
  • Most university staff with children – especially women – believe their family life holds back their career to some degree, while many of those who do not intend to have children made that decision because of their career.
  • Many staff believe they are paid less and have a worse work-life balance than most of their friends.
  • A large majority of staff have considered leaving the higher-education sector.
  • Many staff say their job restricts their ability to see their friends and gets in the way of their ability to conduct a successful relationship.
  • A gulf exists between the views of academics and professional staff in many areas when it comes to work-life balance, with the latter much more content than the former.

Experienced Voices

These findings indicate that many in academia find a satisfying work-life balance elusive.

Harissios Vliagoftis of the Pulmonary Research Group at the University of Alberta, Canada, discussed his experiences with work-life balance over a 30-year career in an article for Frontiers in Pediatrics:

“When I review short periods of my life, a week, a month, or at times even a whole semester, I often notice that there has been no work-life balance. … For example, when I am preparing to submit a new grant or I am approaching a deadline for a big review I agreed to write or for a report required by my job (and by the way, I am always a last-minute person, I had to ask for quite a long extension to be able to submit this narrative), I may have to work 10 or more hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week. However, I always know that this is temporary. After I submit the grant, the manuscript, or the report, I am able to compensate for the time lost from my ’life.’ I will take it easier for a few days, or at times, I may take a few days off and get immersed in other things I like to do, such as traveling or just walking around with my camera(s) in my hands taking pictures or just thinking.”

Jeffrey L. Buller, Florida Atlantic University’s Director of Leadership and Professional Development, discussed work-life balance from the perspective of a university administrator in an article for Academic Leader Today:

“We may think we’re being efficient by putting long hours into our work. We may even regard our inability to stop working as essential if we are to have any hope of getting through the mountain of responsibilities that seems to grow each day. But we’re actually fooling ourselves and doing a disservice to others. We’re fooling ourselves because extended work without a break has diminishing returns.”

Creating Greater Balance

Buller offered these suggested actions to bring academic administrators’ lives into greater balance:

  1. Make sure the people who report to us take genuine vacations and restrict the amount they work outside of standard office hours. We may be setting a horrible example for the people who report to us when we don’t take as much time off as we’re entitled to and routinely take our work home with us.
  2. Have a serious conversation with our supervisors about realistic expectations for our work commitments. Just as we want the people who work for us to know that we don’t expect them to be on duty 24/7/365, so should we have conversations with our own supervisors about their expectations from us and the degree to which those expectations are reasonable.
  3. Set firewalls around how many nights and weekends we’ll be engaged in campus activities. Almost all academic leaders will have a certain number of evening and weekend commitments. It’s important, therefore, to create some boundaries and protect an amount of genuine leisure time that’s appropriate for you and your position. Regardless of the amount, having at least some time that we can call our own is vital to preserving our positive attitude and energy.
  4. Develop alternative ways of being contacted for actual emergencies. Genuine crises do occur from time to time. One way of preserving balance while taking time off is to disconnect: refrain from checking your email except perhaps once a day at a set time. It gives people a way to contact you when they really need to, and it puts them on notice that you’re truly going to be on vacation, not merely working from a remote site.
  5. View delegation as a growth opportunity, not an imposition. There may be future academic leaders who want to get a taste of what it’s like to be the chair, dean, provost, or president. We may be thinking we’re being kind by trying to do everything ourselves, but we may have plenty of people who are eager for the chance to relieve us of some of our duties for reasons of their own.

“The best advice we can give that frenzied, overburdened academic leader we all know (and who may even be the person we see in the mirror) is ‘take a vacation—please,’” Buller wrote.

Work-life balance is possible, but requires the belief that it can occur, and specific plans on how to achieve it.

Each higher-education professional has different circumstances and must tailor his or her plans accordingly.

“We’re obviously living while we’re working (despite a few long-past-their-prime presidents or provosts we may have encountered over the years),” Buller wrote. “Due to the ubiquity of email, we’re often working while we should be resting, spending time with our families, and generally enjoying ourselves. In other words, life is work and work is life for most academic leaders, and therein lies the problem.”

Your job is important, but it shouldn’t be your entire life. Set boundaries and understand when you are tempted to cross them just how important the life portion of your work-life balance is.

This is intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as personalized financial or investment advice. Please consult your financial and investment professional(s) regarding your unique situation.

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