How many hours would you say you work a week? We’ve talked a lot about managing workloads lately on our blog, from imagining an alternative academic career to productivity hacks, but we all tiptoe around the topic of actual working time and the harsh realities of working flexibly.
This topic holds a particular interest to me as my PhD is on flexible work, and I can’t help but notice some staggering numbers of working hours popping up on my work-life balance radar recently.
At a recent workshop held at my institution on PhD careers outside academia, one speaker told of his time in industry by reminding us young wannabies (at least that’s how he made me feel) that, ’60 hour weeks are pretty normal you know, even outside of academia!’. Ok, so maybe he was trying to give us some perspective, but it almost felt like he was boasting.
On social media too, a fellow yogi with an inspirational Instagram feed assures us that if she can find time on the mat whilst working ’50-70 hours a week’, so can we. She works in the City though, London’s different right? And her wages probably reflect her incredible hours. They must do to afford that swanky flat she keeps showing us.
And just when you thought gardening was safe, you find your new 30-something green-fingered heroine is also running her own creative agency and working ’80 hours a week’, whilst maintaining an enviable ‘small outside space’ and writing a book on gardening for the hapless.
All this is making me feel a little inadequate, even though I have an enviable and privileged lifestyle compared to most. Clearly, I am not working hard enough. My lack of hourly commitment must mean I am not serious about my career. Oh gosh, how am I ever going to finish my PhD at this rate?! And if I do manage to complete it within my contracted 37 hours per week, I might as well make the most of this luxury as I could be looking at 60 hours minimum if I ever manage to land a permanent academic job.
The patterns and the maths
How do these hours work exactly? I can only speculate but 60 hours a week could be 12 hours a day, 5 days a week, 7am – 7pm perhaps. Or 9am – 6pm, plus a few hours at home in the evening. Or perhaps 10 hours a day, 6 days a week leaving Sunday totally free for housework and family. As for over 70 hours, that is more than 10 hours every single day of the week. Or over 14 hours in the week and a good few of hours over the weekend too.
Sheesh, when do these people sleep? World leaders may only sleep 4 or 5 hours a night, but surely they have a tad more responsibility and pressure than the rest of us. Not to mention an array of household staff and PAs who have PAs.
Perhaps I am naive or a bit of a shirker, but these hours are unfathomable to me and surely unsustainable. Without giving any context or caveats, these so-called high achievers are sending a dangerous message that this level of work is normal and even worse that it is acceptable.
In her book ‘A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled’, Ruby Wax talks about exactly this in her inimitable style:
People who haven’t got a single open three-minute slot in their day because they’re dashing from meetings to lunches to workouts to appointments to cocktails are thought of in our society as great achievers, they are role models, but in my opinion…they should be burnt at the stake for making many of us feel inadequate
She has an OBE, a Masters from Oxford, a long-term career in comedy and TV, is promoting her work and mobilising new cafes for the Frazzled, whilst managing her own challenges with mental health. Ms Wax is certainly an achiever.
Context and caveats
Those who proclaim to work one and half times more than the European Working Time Directive, are they doing this every single week of the year? Do they include time taken travelling for work or commuting? And what type of work are we talking about here? As my wise supervisor says, 4 hours of creative thought and writing can use as much mental energy as 8 hours of data entry and sorting emails. Meeting clients for example, or researching font types from 1980s editions of Vogue, are both tiring and can go on for hours but are not altogether unpleasant, especially not if you have autonomy over how to allocate that time. And what about the cost of lifestyle choices? City centre apartments, golf club or gym memberships and skinny frappuccinos don’t come cheap. Are we working more hours to sustain more luxurious lifestyles?
Are we really that busy, all the time? I think that if we are going to tell people we work all hours then we have a responsibility, to be honest with them at the same time, to offer the context and the consequences. If you work Sunday morning, do you sometimes take Friday afternoon off? Is your house a pigsty or do you have someone taking care of everything for you? And what tasks count as work for you?
One man, one PhD, some interesting graphs and charts
There is a fascinating post on Thesis Whisperer where a PhD student kept a timesheet of tasks he completed throughout his doctoral studies, as well as the time spent on them. The graphical results are fascinating as well as being reassuring. Although there is little detail on the tasks themselves, it gives a flavour of the variety of academic work and the flexibility of the working week.
During a 3.5 year PhD programme, this student tallied up about a dozen weeks where he clocked up over 60 hours work, and he attributes these to particular deadlines and thesis milestones. The rest of the time, inclusive of these 12 long weeks, he averaged closer to 45 hours a week. This young, single, male student also confesses to being in a privileged position where he had very few responsibilities except to get the PhD done and could thus afford to give extra time to his work as and when required.
For early career academics, we often feel it is those in privileged positions who tell us we should work less. Yet we feel we can’t afford to turn any opportunity down as it may be the one that secures the next job. Maybe there is a way we can meet in the middle, make the most of the available opportunities whilst also maintaining our wellbeing and quite frankly a life outside of academia.
Fellow sociologist, and Director of the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Sussex, Alison Phipps was recently promoted to Professor. She is one of only a few part-time academics to gain this promotion. In an interview about her promotion, Alison shares her experience and explains how to:
- ‘work smart rather than work hard’ by only seeking opportunities which fill gaps on your CV
- ‘be there when you can’t be there’ by making use of social media to increase your academic presence rather than attend every seminar or conference
- make your work do ‘double or triple duty’ by converting blogs into presentations and then into journal articles
Responsible academic citizens
As academics, we love to talk about what we do, how hard we work and explain that ‘no, we don’t get the summer holidays off’. There are newspaper articles aplenty, even more blogs and numerous books now being published on how we may be able to resist a culture of higher and higher demands and expectations. Last year, I co-hosted a workshop on how doctoral students may begin to challenge cultural norms with a little help from feminism, and in Sociology at least these ideas of resistance are starting to gain some traction.
We love our research, and most of the time we love our jobs and our students so feel willing to do extra, over and above our contracts and paychecks. But perhaps we should be cautious of how we talk about our ‘busy-ness’ and be honest with ourselves and others about that 60 hour week. There is a lot of difference between a 50 and an 80 hour week, a whole part-time contract in fact! And if 60 hours is your new normal, do you want it to be and does it have to be?
Some people love to work, and who am I to stop them. Some of us love other things too, and busyness is not a competition. When we talk about how much we do or don’t work, let’s also talk about why.
So, how many hours a week would you say you work? Answer via tweet, or add a comment to this post, with your context and caveats.