BsWei/iStock/Getty Images Plus
Academia was once known to provide freedom: freedom of thought, freedom to choose where to take the research and freedom to structure one’s work time to fit a variety of different lifestyles. Yet most researchers don’t feel that they have the freedom to organize their schedule flexibly. They feel as if they can only stay ahead of their workload by regularly working evenings and weekends without enough time to recover from their work.
The outcomes of academe’s existing approach, rooted in the notion that dedicating more than regular work hours to research is the key to success, are alarming.
- Science published a study showing that within 10 years, half of tenure-track faculty members left the positions they had fought for so hard.
- After the pandemic, things got even worse. In a survey Inside Higher Ed conducted in 2022, 79 percent of provosts indicated that faculty members are leaving at higher rates than ever before.
- A study assessing almost 2,000 academic physicians and basic science faculty showed that every fifth person had significant levels of depression. Faculty cited work strain–related lack of job satisfaction as a key cause.
- Nature published a study that polled a similarly high number of graduate and master’s students from 26 countries and 234 institutions. It found that graduate students are more than six times as likely to suffer from anxiety and depression as people who didn’t choose an academic career.
Countless other studies point to stress and burnout among those who work in academic research well beyond the levels in the general population. As academia becomes a less and less attractive workplace, people are choosing other career opportunities that provide better working conditions, higher incomes and more freedom (aka more free time).
It wasn’t always this way. If you entered an academic career in the 1950s, more than half of your cohort would still be working in it 30 years later. One thing that changed is that academia started measuring output using metrics such as publications, impact factors and grant funding. Whether those metrics are meaningful in assessing the impact and value of our work is a different discussion. But pressures related to performance expectations, in addition to an overall increase in responsibilities, have led to a dangerous situation.
It is time for us to examine our cultural norms and assumptions about what it takes to succeed in academia. We must evaluate the sustainability of the expectations we impose on ourselves and others, especially the deeply ingrained belief that more hours are necessary to advance our careers in the current academic system.
A recent study in the United Kingdom of 61 companies with a total of 2,900 employees looked at the consequences of introducing a four-day workweek. The companies that participated came from a range of industries outside academia, and despite a reduction in work hours, employees received their full pay. On a trial basis, each business structured a 32-hour workweek based on the nature of their work. For example, people may have worked four days a week or five or six shorter days.
The first outcome was not all that surprising: employees embraced the changes with enthusiasm. They were less stressed and had fewer worries. Exhaustion and sleep problems were reduced, mental and physical health improved, and work-life balance was enhanced.
The second outcome was much less expected: of all the companies involved, 56 opted to continue with the 32-hour workweek due to the positive impact that the reduced working hours had on overall business performance and bottom line. Revenues remained the same, while terminations decreased by 57 percent, sick days decreased by 65 percent and job satisfaction increased for 48 percent of the employees.
A Viable Option for Higher Ed
But would such an approach be applicable in an academic context? This prompted us to delve deeper and formulate more specific questions: What factors distinguish academic work from other industries to the extent that the findings of this study may not be directly applicable to academia? What challenges do we need to overcome to implement a 32-hour week in academic research?
As a starting point, we asked our teams and the clients we advise on leadership and management systems whether they thought a 32-hour workweek could be a viable option in higher education. And we examined their objections, which fell into three main areas.
- There is always more work than time. There’s just too much to do! This assumption reflects a culture and systems problem. The demands for constant output in the form of publications and funding are unrealistic for faculty members who work with relatively small teams compared to the large teams in corporations. In small teams, any challenge—like a team member getting sick or leaving—threatens consistent output.
Additionally, our workforce is made up mainly of trainees who labor for low pay and should get high-quality training and mentoring in return. They should not be expected to operate like skilled staff, yet that’s at odds with the performance requirements put on team leaders, who are under pressure to produce publications and bring in funding. In many cases, those pressures, paired with a lack of leadership and management training, result in unrealistic expectations of oneself and other team members.
The solution isn’t more hours. Realistic expectations and better systems for training and completing work are of the essence.
- We often are doing assembly-line work—the more hours you put in, the more output you get. Here we need to ask ourselves, how much time are our team members spending on value-adding activities—thinking, planning projects, experimentation, data analysis and interpretation, writing, and so on—and how much are they spending on ancillary, more assembly-line tasks like cleaning, searching and sorting, compliance, and other administrative work? If they’re spending most of their time on the latter tasks, you probably have the answer to the question of why your once inspired, enthusiastic and full-of-energy team member is now disenchanted. In addition, a linear relationship between hours and output may hold true for a certain amount of time spent on assembly-line work, but beyond a certain point, each additional hour produces significantly less output than previous ones.
Further, we should examine whether the same output can be achieved with fewer hours by working more efficiently in the lab. Effective process management methodologies such as lean management or 5S, which are widely implemented in industry, reduce ancillary work, increasing output while keeping working hours constant.
- I love my job. Working 40-plus hours a week is what I choose to do. No one should be forced to stop working, but we cannot impose our own standards on other team members. It’s not only acceptable but also desirable for team members to have a fulfilling life outside the lab as well as within it.
We must ask ourselves how much work is too much. The rules of productivity apply not only to assembly-line work but also creative endeavors, and even more so. Two studies, one by Stanford University and another by the World Health Organization, demonstrate that working more than 55 hours per week is not only pointless but also harmful to health.
How many hours are too many also depends on the nature of the work and your levels of competence for the task. For most of us, writing a research article may be more demanding, requiring more mental energy than performing a routine task. Other parameters also dictate how much work you can do before your performance declines, including your current stress levels, overall health or ability to focus. In short, more time doesn’t mean more output, and shorter work periods can improve overall productivity.
Of course, flexibility is of the essence in research. Some experiments or tasks simply cannot be completed within an eight-hour workday or a four-day workweek. Animals, plants and other experimental subjects may need to be taken care of even on weekends. Researchers doing field studies may work for long stretches of time. Sometimes we have deadlines that we need to meet, so you might occasionally work longer days.
But that shouldn’t become the norm. People must be allowed and encouraged to live their lives, not just act as cogs in the wheel. As author Kurt Vonnegut said, “I’m a human being, not a human doing.”
Those who choose to pursue a career in science are usually willing to be flexible but should recognize that:
- The hours that you’ve put into your success may not be the only or key cause of your success. Most of us have not tested our assumptions by taking a different approach. Actual data strongly point in another direction, suggesting that exceptional results can be obtained by focusing on efficiency and strategy—or working smarter rather than just working longer.
- Consistently working beyond our physical, mental and emotional capabilities is not sustainable and can lead to overwork and burnout.
- Requiring all team members to put in similar hours will reduce diversity on our teams. People with small children may not be able or willing to work certain hours or days. Someone in their 20s may have the energy to run an 18-hour experiment, while we authors can barely manage the occasional 12-hour workday nowadays. Each individual is different and should be encouraged to explore and respect their limits. If the academe selects only those capable of working long hours with unmanageable workloads, we will miss out on much creative talent and valuable diverse perspectives.
The companies in the U.K. study adopted several productivity-enhancing strategies to offset reduced working hours, including optimizing meetings, improving email practices, analyzing production processes, designating uninterrupted work periods, automating tasks, using project management software, prioritizing monotasking, creating task lists and reducing the number of people involved in processes to diminish complexity. Higher education should implement similar measures. Streamlining and simplifying administrative processes, resetting expectations, and prioritizing value-adding activities are places to start.
Optimizing time management will contribute, too, but there is no magic bullet that fixes everything. In fact, the goal is not to complete the same amount of work within a shorter time but to reduce the number of tasks and increase efficiency to achieve an equivalent level of needle-moving output—things that create value and impact. For example, increasing efficiency in support tasks—by cleaning up overcomplicated compliance and administrative processes and by automating and eliminating tasks—frees up time for creative, intellectual work, the very type of work that creates joy, impact and fulfillment among researchers.
Applying Lessons Learned
When we implemented what we learned about effective leadership and management with our own research teams, we reduced the frantic and unsustainable pace at which we were operating by doing the following.
- Discussing team values that inform our approach to work. Kendra’s and Stefanie’s labs regularly discuss and revise their values statement and let that guide the team’s actions, including how and how much they work. Creating a vision of ambitious, inspired, creative, collaborative work facilitates such discussions around effectiveness and effort rather than hours punched in or out.
- Shortening meetings and making them less frequent. Stefanie’s team optimizes their meeting structures on a regular basis. They recently reduced weekly lab meetings to every other week and individual meetings to once a month. That works because project-management systems are in place that allow team members to agree on a plan that needs to be updated less frequently.
- Reducing emails and Slack messages. Stefanie’s team has instituted one teamwide logistical meeting on Mondays to discuss all organizational, administrative or decision-making tasks that don’t constitute an emergency instead of sending endless email or message strings back and forth.
- Improving writing efficiency using ChatGPT. You have to edit heavily, but it’s a great tool for first drafts of recommendation and nomination letters or to shorten text.
- Taking time off. Kendra expects people to take a minimum of four weeks away from work each year.
- Sharing “monkeys.” A well-known Harvard Business Review article, originally published in the ’70s, explained that supervisors such as research team leaders and lab managers are pressed for time because they get more tasks—a.k.a. “monkeys”—from their teams than they can reasonably handle in the time they have. Stefanie largely solved this problem by having biweekly time slots for people to work with her as a team on projects, abstracts, manuscripts and grants.
- Changing mind-sets. Kendra realized that she could spend her time and energy either worrying about how many hours people worked or how much progress they were making. She found that focusing on increasing progress through problem-solving and training was a better use of her time.
Even if we can’t convince universities to embrace change, consider running the experiment for yourself and your team for a period of time. Test if this increases your and your team’s levels of joy and excitement for research. Stefanie has been participating in a well-being index survey that her university sends monthly and finds a clear inverse relationship between the number of hours worked and her subjective well-being. Also, check if working less negatively affects your productivity.
This approach to work—efficiency over hours clocked, realistic expectations—may also make recruitment and retention in academia more competitive despite the lower salaries that we often must offer compared to industry.
In conclusion, the U.K. study showed that employees loved a four-day workweek and businesses didn’t suffer. And it provides data that can inform conversations about improving work-life balance and productivity in higher education, as well. To make careers in academia desirable, fulfilling and sustainable, we need to question the assumption that it takes long hours of work to be successful and reconsider the unsustainable demands on research teams and individuals. Reducing work hours won’t solve all our cultural problems, but it can begin to address crucial issues like low job satisfaction, burnout and the Great Resignation in higher education.