Working too hard?

I really hate being ill, it’s something I really, really try to avoid, but this week I caught a cold. Pah! But I soldiered on and, with the help of a lot of sleep, copious hot drinks and a couple of pills, got through to the weekend. Then today I flopped. Couldn’t do anything – no work, no play, just zoning out…

I know several people in all walks of life that go through this on a weekly basis, so it might not seem such big news. But as a young, (relatively) fit and active person that enjoys life, I’m lucky enough to be in good health the vast majority of the time. Of course there could be several single reasons why I got ill (changing weather, flu going ’round, homesickness etc…), but in the 10 years since I started uni the main correlation I’ve found is with working too hard.* And working too hard can lead to other problems, so I thought I’d write something about it.

Now everyone knows that work-life balance is important for good health (by which I mean mental and physical health), and that’s why labour laws limit the amount of time you’re allowed to work. For example, at Cambridge I had to work exactly 37.5 hours per week, whilst at NIMS if I work at all on a weekend or holiday, I am obliged to take a whole day off within the next week.

That’s great in theory. Except in practice every researcher knows it doesn’t work.

I love my research and I have freedom to do it when I want, and that means there’s always a risk of trying to do too much of it without remembering to take time out. But with self-control and good time management I can control that (I think that was the main thing lacking this week for me!).

Then there are times in science when an experiment must be done out of normal hours or for longer than normal office hours allow. That’s ok if you can take enough time off afterwards.

And then there are terrible targets and dreaded deadlines set by The System. The System – your boss (unless you’re lucky), your department (very lucky), the journal you hope to publish in (not a hope!) etc. – very rarely shows active concern if you work too much. In fact, by measuring the performance and success by numbers – numbers of articles published, impact factors, citations, international contacts, conference presentations… – we** actively encourage pushing that work-life balance to the very limit. Because one more hour spent working means one step closer to that paper to put on the CV to help get funding to get the next job = success, right?

I’m new to this game, but that seems to me a very short-sighted view. How are young scientists meant to develop their expertise and experience with such a narrow view of success? And how can we build a trustworthy scientific community when all its members are tired, stressed and constantly competing with one-another? I’m not going to go into the overtime / pay discussion here, but there’s definitely a difference between the time I spend productively working and the time that my employer considers I have spent when the paycheque arrives at the end of the month.

In my brief experience in the world of research so far I’ve come across several examples of harmful work “ethics,” spanning individuals to entire institutions. There was this one researcher who proudly announced to his research group that his new year’s resolution was to work every day. Then there are group leaders who force their students to work at least 6 days a week (methods of coercion ranging from unsaid expectation and guilt to arranging group meetings at weekends or on Monday morning and forcing new students to sign a contract obeying the “group rules”). And then there are departments (could this extend to whole countries?!) that have the in-before-the-boss-out-after-the-boss culture so deeply embedded that individuals literally sleep at their desks in the lab.

And the result? For the individual: guilt, self-doubt, loss of social/family life, loss of motivation, lack of clear thinking, loss of enthusiasm for the very thing that brought these talented people into science, this could be a very long list. For research groups and institutions: bitterness, resentment, constant judgement, division, scandals. And for science as a whole?

Well, I have friends that left science altogether because of it. And that’s a loss for everybody.

*Short disclaimer – Although I call myself a scientist I haven’t got conclusive statistical evidence for this, it’s just what happens…

**Yes, I’m part of the system too. But you’ve got the best chance to change things if you’re on the inside, right?

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