How do I tell you about rest without telling you about academic workaholism?

I have finally made my way to the beach. I’m mesmerised by the reflection of the sunlight on the water, and have no idea where time went today. I hope that my colleagues will eventually – when I’m back at work with a sunburn – understand that this out-of-the-blue vacation during Greek Orthodox Easter is special to me (even though, for me, this vacation has nothing to do with religious celebrations). 

I can hear my emails arriving non-stop, and I take solace in my out-of-office automatic reply. Still, I feel the urge to take a sneak peek at my inbox here and there, to make sure that I didn’t forget to submit a grade, I didn’t miss an important deadline, or there isn’t a crisis that needs my attention. I’m tempted to respond quickly to a couple of emails, only to avoid the mounting anxiety of the pile that will no doubt be waiting for me upon my return to work. I resist. 

I wonder if I’m identifying with my work to such a degree that I cannot disconnect completely. As I look out into the sea, I decide that I cannot handle an identity crisis at this point in my life, so I let the thought slip away quickly.

There’s nothing admirable about working non-stop, about bragging about how busy we are while over-publishing at the same time

My eye catches a couple of reminders for ‘urgent’ tasks. The nagging thought that one of them might be really urgent makes me forget the sea momentarily, and I find myself scrolling through them quickly. I’m relieved when I can finally assure myself that none of them seems as urgent right now as my swim. 

It has taken me four days to get to this state of mind. I take pride in the fact that it has only taken me four days and not my entire vacation. It feels good not to be in a single meeting for a week, to slow down, to run longer distances, to sleep in, to watch bad TV, to start mixing up the days and to just ‘waste’ time. I realise that this makes me less competitive and less successful by neoliberal academic standards. But I hope that, despite this purported failure, there’s something important in modelling rest and self-care for my junior colleagues and students. 

Academia might never stop being a place where making free time feels like an attempt to redefine the holy grail, but academics need to stop taking pride in their workaholism. There’s nothing admirable about working non-stop, about bragging about how busy we are while over-publishing at the same time, and about not proactively defending a better work-life balance.  

Full disclosure: I didn’t write this while on the beach, and really hope that nobody is reading it while on vacation.




  1. Bravo Lucy, perfectly put! I – as all others here – of course know the feeling. The big problem that I see (and which somehow is not addressed in your column) is that this ‘disconnect’ is not something we academics can or cannot freely choose. It is unfortunately built right in the core of the academic system/workflow. As in

    -the sum of the tasks to cover by a person is larger than the work-time that person has and for most of those there’s no way to delegate or deny. So taking a break will simply change the distribution of tasks over time but not the area under the distribution. It will actually create precisely the huge post-holiday peaks that you talk about.

    -there is (almost) no support for this from the universities (plural, RUG is not an exception). This is in stark contrast to virtually any company I know of – there, one can in most cases talk to the line manager to calibrate expectations/plan work. There’s no business process (in companies) I’ve seen in the past 20 years where someone just walks in and says “this needs to be done in X days no matter what” – and the workforce just accepts that. The room for fair assessment of workload simply doesn’t exist in universities (how many count in the effort spent on reaching a research result, rather than the result itself?)

    -there’s no corporate policy for private time. I worked at Philips for a while (sabbatical) and I recalled there was a strict company policy – no mails/etc sent to employees while on holidays (except if super senior/board level but that’s different, those guys had perks we cannot even dream of). Same at several other companies I know of, e.g., IBM, HP, Volvo. I actually know an ex-vice-CEO of Volvo, personal friend. The guy simply switched off his phone during weekends – company policy (really). Why cannot univs implement this?

    -there’s almost no redundancy in the univ system. A lecturer is basically alone responsible for an entire course (except TA’s but I don’t mean support roles). If the lecturer gets ill or anything else, the workload is not passed directly to some other person since there’s often no-one with the skills to do that _immediately_. Companies don’t have that – there are N people for a given operational role. Why? Financing. The univs (at least in NL/EU mostly) are chronically under-financed so they cannot afford redundancy.

    -career ladder: Progressing at a univ doesn’t mean doing you job well, according to parameters (as it is normal in almost all other fields of business) – it means often achieving the impossible at a personal cost. Of course, this could be changed in a second so to speak – if there was the will.

    -business model: Univs (at least in the NL) are not free entreprises; they’re constrained by tons of financing rules from the government; they cannot e.g. decide on own admission policies, own tuition taxes, etc – so they cannot truly optimize for a good balance between production and costs. Any private company can do that freely – and they do when needed. E.g., deciding to invest more in X, recruit more in Y, set the price to Z, if the market is willing. As such, univs (in the NL) cannot by construction optimize for workload vs revenues – they have to increase workload to meet the revenues [or other criteria] given to them.

    Sure, there’s also the personal rat-race factor. But let’s be honest: What created that? No normal human would read boring admin mails during holidays unless that was really _necessary_ in some sense as listed above.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. We should all be more proactive and explicit about these things (as far as I’m concerned, this should include permanently switching off all automatic alerts, as well as removing our work e-mail from our phone before going on a holiday). We can talk about how important free time is, but what we actually do is what we actually teach.


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