In REST, I talk a lot about why being able to unplug from work and detach emotionally and psychologically are good in the both the short term and the long term: short-term, they help recharge you psychic batteries; long-term, they help avoid burnout, build resilience, and let you trade a style of working that’s always-on but less productive, for a style that leaves you free for intense bouts of work, and periods in which you’re free to mind-wander— which itself can be a great source of (effortless) new ideas. And it’s not just the slackers who need such breaks; as no less an authority on success than Winston Churchill observed, “it may well be that those whose work is their pleasure are those who most need the means of banishing it at intervals from their minds.”
University of Bedfordshire psychologist Gail Kinman has been studying the impact of always-on technologies and their use among academics, and she argued recently that “being “always available” can have a devastating impact on the stress levels, work-life balance and job performance of those working within universities:”
Drawing on research conducted via an online survey and interviews with academics across the UK, she analysed their workload demands, schedule flexibility and email management. Many were highly engaged in their jobs, she argued, and used the flexibility granted them to work longer and harder, rather than to improve their work-life balance.
You might assume that academics have it easier than other professions, and that while finance has gotten faster, medicine is more grueling, and other jobs are either more demanding or face extinction, academia remains a bastion of work that unfolds slowly, tomes that gestate for decades, and theories that are patiently built. But as Matt Carrigan argues, “the imagined slowness” of academic life “has given way to a frenetic pace,”
defined by a perpetual ratcheting up of demands and an entrepreneurial ethos seeking new and quantifiable opportunities. As the ‘self-employed mindset’ begins to take hold, it’s difficult to know how much to give: am I doing enough? The demand for ‘excellence’ is open-ended because it’s never clear what this will constitute in the future.
And email plays a big part of that. Back to Kinman:
“A considerable proportion of academics saw their personal and work time as inextricably linked,” explained Professor Kinman, so “emails were read and replied to anywhere and any time”.
Yet this often led to “rumination about work problems” outside office hours, with “serious implications for wellbeing and job performance”. There was also “increasing evidence that email overload and lack of respite from ICT [information and communications technology] can lead to emotional exhaustion and cognitive failures”.
The people who fall into this trap are more likely to suffer than to solve the problem of under-producing. But in academia, it’s really easy to fall into this, because you’re taught that you’re supposed to be committed, to always be thinking about your work, and probably are really, positively interested in what you do. But then you add the demands of committees, the clamor of students (and parents), the literally endless need to write grants and papers, and you go from a situation in which you’re working because you love your subject, to one in which you’re working faster because that’s what the system demands— and there’s no standard that says that this many hours is too many. In academia, there’s no such thing as enough.