by Alex Powell

From the outside, it may appear that students and academics have pretty comfortable lives. We can largely work how and when we want. I frequently lie in past 10am and often come back home after just a 6-hour working day. But despite appearances, this doesn’t mean that we have it super easy. As I am finding more and more, maintaining a good work-life balance can be a real struggle – a struggle that academics and students around the world are all too familiar with.

Whether we are working on research or studying, there is always something more we could be doing, and this makes it very hard to relax. It is perhaps unsurprising that recent studies reveal how academics face higher mental health risks than other professions. The lack of a clear work-life balance, the inability to put work aside when it would be appropriate to do so, does have material effects on the lives of academics and students alike. Most pressing, in my own experience, is the guilt. Whenever I find myself not working, for whatever reason – recently, that has been binge watching Stranger Things with my boyfriend – I start to feel guilty about all the work I am not doing, and I start to feel like I am not taking my studies seriously enough. Even when I am explicitly trying to take some time off doing work, I still think about work.

There is always more work for you to be doing

One key symptom of this problem is losing your evenings. Academic work is not a normal 9-5 profession. It is not at all strange to start working at 7pm or to spend the morning doing something completely unrelated to work. But even when you have worked all day, you’ll probably still get that pang of guilt if you aren’t working in the evening. There is always more work for you to be doing, and if you are not strict with yourself, you will find that you are always doing it.

These issues of guilt and time pressure become manifestly exacerbated when they interact with other struggles academics commonly face, such as a tendency towards perfectionism. If you always feel that there is more that could be done to improve your work, you will find yourself putting far more time and effort into each project than is healthy or realistic. This can have highly detrimental effects on the overall mental health and wellbeing of academics and students alike.


The TEF, REF (Research Excellence Framework) and upcoming KEF (Knowledge Excellence Framework) are placing more and more demands on academics’ time. Credit: HEFCE

One major factor which needs to be accounted for in pinpointing these issues is the increasing presence of systemic drains on academics’ time. In recent years we have seen new government interventions in the forms of the REF and the TEF, alongside swathes of other new measures, which eat into the amount of their working days academics are able to devote to their research. This leaves those academics wishing to build their research profile and rise up the academic ladder with less time to do that work. It inevitably gets pushed into what should be their time off, further blurring the lines between work and the rest of life. We have to recognise that drives to improve standards, while they have positive aspects, are lessening the ability of academics to have a clearly defined work-life balance.

To move away from the doom and gloom for a moment, I’ll close with a few recommendations of actions we can all take, staff and students alike, to put a little life back into the balance. Firstly, take back your weekends. I never used to treat weekends any differently to any other day of the week. As an undergrad, and a masters student, I would work when I felt like, including on Saturday or Sunday. But recently, I have been making a concerted effort to take a proper ‘day off’ at least once a week, and you know what? It really helps. Secondly, turn off your emails outside of working hours. We all sneak a peek at our work inbox when we are supposed to be done for the day. But is that really good for you? Is always being ready, at a second’s notice, to jump back into work mode and reply going to give you the space you need to unwind? Finally, learn to say no. As academics we have far more control over our workload than most. We aren’t always given a choice, but saying no to more work is often an option, and we should learn to take it more.

Featured image credit: kevint3141

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