Post provided by Chloe Robinson
Academia and university culture in general are high-paced, demanding environments to work and study in. In the UK alone, a Unihealth study identified that 80% of students studying in higher education experienced stress and anxiety. Similarly, staff and faculty are currently under tremendous pressure and the effects are apparent. A study for the Higher Education Policy Institute revealed that university counselling referrals have risen by three-quarters between 2009 and 2015. So it’s hardly surprising that universities are being coined primary ‘anxiety machines’.
A multitude of factors can cause the kinds of stress being experienced by so many in universities. Unmanageable workloads, lack of permanent contracts, research exploitation, discrimination, sexism, lack of sufficient support and supervision, pressure to be successful and high competition are just some of the reasons. University bosses state they are aware of the issues and are actively working to improve well-being in institutions, but a lot still remains to be done to tackle the issues.
Invisible Boundaries in Academia
One of the big stress contributors is the 24/7 work culture of academia. The expectation of staff and students to work outside of designated work hours on a regular basis has resulted in poor work-life balance for many. Academia boasts job flexibility, which is rarely achieved in many other work environments, but this flexibility is a double-edged sword for most. The line between work and personal life is often blurred, and many of us struggle to find sufficient time for ourselves, our families and for doing things which make us happy.
It’s clear that balance is elusive in academia for most, and its absence erodes the ability to find joy in work. Happiness both in and out of the workplace is key for optimal performance in studies, research or at work. For students, happiness is a key determining factor for academic performance. But for staff and faculty, there are few studies investigating how happiness affects our work performance. Many of us take it upon ourselves to maintain (or reinstall) happiness in spite of mounting work pressures.
Maintaining Happiness in University Culture
March 20th is the International Day of Happiness, an annual day established by the United Nations. This day was first recognised in 2012 to highlight the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world. With the current global COVID-19 pandemic crisis, we believe that this year more than ever we should recognise the positive steps people in academia are taking to maintain their happiness.
To get an idea of the variety of techniques and activities people studying and working in academia do to maintain their work-life balance and general happiness, I asked a random set of people based at the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics (University of Guelph) the following question:
“What do you do to maintain your work-life balance?”
Carley Maitland, an undergraduate student and lab technician, explained how she actively makes time for herself on a day to day basis: “Having a full day of work and class then coming home to do homework can be very exhausting. I worry about not having enough time in the day to get it all done. To maintain a balance, I make a point of cooking and eating dinner with my roommates so I can be social and make sure that I am keeping up with my physical health.”
Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. Bettina Thalinger, was keen to share her thoughts on how to maintain balance whilst staying productive: “I think the key is to set clear overall boundaries, but then be completely flexible if that’s necessary. For me that means: no work on weekends; but exceptions for paper-related deadlines, conferences, field-work and experiments if I cannot get the work done otherwise.” She then went onto make a good point regarding pacing yourself throughout pursuing your career in academia: “In my opinion, it’s also necessary to acknowledge that if you want to stay in science, this is a long-term situation. Being on the brink of a burn-out during PhD or Postdoc will have a negative impact on how you carry out your job later in life. If I feel stressed out, I do more sports and try to get enough sleep every night.” Finally, she wanted to finish by saying: “Celebrate the little accomplishments, because the big ones (new publications, accepted grant proposals) can be few and far between.”
Taxonomic specialist (Diptera), Valerie Levesque-Beaudin explains how having a dog with anxiety helps her keep up exercise and time outside: “I have a dog with anxiety, so she forces me to follow a regular schedule, which includes daily walks and visit to the park. It makes me go home regularly, be active and enjoy some daily fresh air with her.”
In addition to students and postdocs, I was keen to feature the thoughts of non-research staff, who are often forgotten regarding the discussion of work-life balance and stress in academia. Hannah James, (Manager, Media & Communications) discussed how keeping a daily and weekly routine helps her maintain work-life balance: “Upon waking, I try to leave my phone in airplane mode until I have had a morning walk outdoors and set my own tone for the day. Also, since Mondays can be kind of jarring and often filled with new challenges and developments, I tell myself that Monday is a soft launch to the week – my “extendaweekend”. By that I mean that I give my best during my working hours but allow myself to do whatever I want and need in the evening, from ordering my favourite takeout and spending time with my family, or losing myself in a creative project. I find this energizes me for the rest of the week.”
A combination of setting routines & boundaries, getting exercise, making time for friends and acknowledging successes, no matter how small, are important strategies for my colleagues to maintain their happiness and achieve work-life balance. Personally, Zumba has been my saviour. Taking part in Zumba classes most evenings and weekends makes me mentally switch off from my work and take a well-needed break from writing.
There are many things we can do to maintain our happiness and positivity, particularly during stressful and uncertain times. For some inspiration, visit the International Day of Happiness website for tools and resources and remember: Keep Calm – Stay Wise – Be Kind.