Work life balance: the official version

Debbie at work!

Debbie at work!

We have a lot of freedom as academics to determine what we do and when we do it. Maybe this freedom is why we agonize so much about what the right balance is. No one would argue that we should work all the time. But what should we actually do?

The first thing to have clear is what we have to do. By this I mean classes and meetings that are scheduled and not optional. I think these should always be during normal work hours. Those hours are easily defined as the hours daycare centers are open, perhaps 7 AM to 6 PM  Monday through Friday at the most extensive. So, no meeting or class should be scheduled before 8 AM or after 5:30 PM and on weekdays only. Is that so hard?

I worked back at Rice University to change the normal time of one of their seminar series, Scientia, from beginning at 4:30 PM to beginning at 4:00 PM. This small change was unwelcome to many but without it I could not attend the talks since daycare was a dollar a minute after 6:00 PM. I ultimately prevailed over the interests of the childless who wanted to work a little longer and a quick visit to the Scientia page indicates that this is still the case.

How about evening classes? What if someone wants to teach an evening class? I say, this is fine, but it should be their choice. How about departmental retreats, or conferences? I say hold them during working hours, or reimburse parents the cost of excellent child care, about $20/hour.

There are a lot of other issues that come up like whether there is somewhere pleasant with a window to pump milk.

How about optional meetings and workshops not at the home institution? These often go over weekends because they try to avoid normal teaching hours. I think this is fine because they are optional. I myself organized such a meeting, and will be attending another soon. Ideally, there too child care would be paid for. At the very least, child care providers would be allowed free into the meeting with the baby.

Philip and Becca at play

Philip and Becca at play

What normal work hours are is a social construct. In Denmark it is shorter than in most of the US. At Rice University  40 hours a week was normal. At Washington University in St. Louis it is 37.5 hours a week on the academic campus and something horrendous on the medical campus. I think there is something to be said for normalcy in required hours. This is the start of balance between work and life. I like it that they call it life and not leisure, because outside of work there is a lot of family work, shopping, cooking, child care, cleaning and the like.

So, don’t let your boss, your chair, or your team leader ever require something outside of normal business hours. How you balance work and life on your own is the topic for another day.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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1 Response to Work life balance: the official version

  1. This is important; it’s too easy in academia to lose track of work/life balance. Some of the mentors I’ve respected most have balanced well.

    I’m torn on evening classes, though. They do serve an important constituency (when I taught my non-majors bio in evenings, I picked up all kinds of working part-time students, and also students in programs with rigidly scheduled days). And there are plenty of occupations in which nobody questions the evening shift! I think on balance that my Dean should be able to assign me to teach an evening class, even if I’d rather not, even if that requires me to arrange child-care (it sometimes did), and even if it interfered with evening leisure (it sometimes did). I’m not sure how my job differs, in this respect, from those of nurses, bartenders, shopkeepers, or movie-theatre ticket-sellers? I’m privileged to set my working hours in a lot of ways (as you point out), but I’m not sure this is one of them. Your thoughts on this argument?

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