My Blog on Work-Life Balance in Academia

Lancaster University Mental Health and Well-Being Day

Wednesday 18th February is Lancaster University’s Mental Health and Well-Being Day. According to their website, it is “a day to feel good and live well”. I won’t get distracted by suggesting that every day is a day to feel good and live well; rather, I wanted to focus on tips for well-being being provided by the LU Community through Twitter on the #LUWellBeing hashtag.

There are some good tips on there. They range from stroking a cat, to giving someone a hug, to walking to work, to saving nice emails and re-reading them when feeling a bit down.

These are all good. They do, however, all assume individual choice. I’m not (yet) seeing any tweets that ask about the University’s role in promoting well-being. So, I’d like to ask what a University could do to ensure its staff and students feel good? (One tweet does question the back-to-back scheduling of exam weeks, for instance).

Universities nowadays are places of increased workload due to pressures of REF, league tables and their like. Students, too, are feeling it. So, when a University decides to introduce that next initiative, rather than simply asking the usual question of whether it will positively affect the bottom line, perhaps it should also be asking what the impact on well-being will be in its community.


To Tweet or not to Tweet

For the next two days, I am acting as a Tutor at a careers development workshop for PhD students. Entitled “PhD, What Next?”, it’s an opportunity for current PhD students to explore career options and get feedback on CVs, cover letters, networking etc.

Over dinner this evening, there was an interesting discussion among the tutors on the value of social media in career networking. It was described as prompting a ‘Marmite reaction’, that is, people either embrace social media for networking or shudder at the thought.

I don’t use social media much for work purposes myself. I used to Tweet quite a lot, but I found that it was allowing work to creep into my home life. Different people use Twitter differently, but, for me, there was no distinction in my followees into those that were work related and those that were not. This made it way too easy for Twitter to invade my non-work life. I might be at home relaxing and do a quick check on Twitter, only to see something related to work that then made me think of work. Now, don’t get me wrong. That work-related tweet might be really interesting. I like my work, after all, and find it interesting. But that’s not the point. The tweet would jolt me from thinking about non-work things to thinking about a specific work topic, and that indirectly let in all those other work-related topics. I stopped using Twitter once I realized this. And I don’t feel I’ve missed out on anything.

Scheduling meetings to maximize well-being

Work-life balance and well-being are closely connected.

Get your work-life balance right, and your well-being will improve. Get it wrong, and you’ll spend a lot of your time outside work worrying about work, and your well-being will suffer.

One key way that you can improve your work-related well-being is to follow some simple rules in terms of how you schedule meetings. As a general rule, avoid scheduling meetings on a Monday or a Friday. Why? Meetings can be stressful and usually require preparation. If you schedule a meeting for Monday morning, you may end up prepping on Sun night and/or you may end up worrying about the meeting all weekend. Similarly, if you have a meeting on Friday afternoon that goes badly, you’ll ruin your weekend with worry.

The easiest solution to this is simply not to schedule meetings Рor indeed any potentially stressful activity on Monday or Friday. Note the emphasis. That Friday afternoon meeting might well go fine and leave you worry-free for the weekend. But why take the risk? Schedule the meeting on Thursday instead and use your Friday for more relaxed, individual work.

Of course, it might not be practical for you to follow this rule. You may not have full control over your calendar. Or you may simply have too many meetings (a warning in itself that something must change – but that’s another topic). In these cases, I’d recommend the following guidelines:

  • Avoid scheduling meetings at all on Monday and Friday if possible.
  • If not possible, at the very least avoid meetings on Monday morning and Friday afternoon.
  • If you do end up with meetings on a Monday morning, do the prep on Friday so you can rest well at the weekend (or better yet, consider not doing any prep at all – but this depends on the meeting; if it’s one of those annoying 3 hour meetings with 100 pages of paperwork to read, don’t waste your time reading it before the meeting. A quick skim to look for major issues should suffice. The rest can be read in the meeting).

There are other reasons not to meet on Monday mornings. This Manager Tools podcast gives a good one. It makes the point that people are usually full of energy and raring to go on Monday morning. Don’t kill that energy by holding a meeting.

Welcome to my blog!

I’ve become increasingly interested in the concept of work-life balance in the academic world.

There are a couple of things that happened that piqued my interest.

Firstly, I’ve been running a project, Digital Brain Switch, that studies what work-life balance means in the modern world of always-on connectivity. Secondly, about 5 months ago, I became Head of School in my Department. Digital Brain Switch gave me an academic understanding of what work-life balance really means in today’s world. And acting as Head of School has given me some very practical challenges to deal with in terms of managing my own work-life balance. This is not even to mention the fact that my wife gave birth to two adorable baby girl twins 6 months ago – so work-life balance definitely means something very different to me than it used to!

I’ve thought a lot about work-life balance in the last few years. I’ve gone on leadership courses about directing work, I’ve had a coach who has taught me a lot about managing my own work, and I’ve experimented a bit with mindfulness and other well-being approaches.

It turns out that I’ve always been interested in work-life balance: ten years ago when I lived in California, I had a very clear separation between my work and my ‘life’. Things are not so clear nowadays, but, from talking to colleagues, I somehow feel like I’ve got it a little bit more sussed than some of them.

So I thought I’d start this blog as a way of getting down some of my thoughts on the matter.

For now, I’ll leave with the following image: it’s of one of my PhD students at an impromptu work session in Paris during a conference. Looks nice, doesn’t it? Is this what the ideal work place looks like? I’ll leave you for now to ponder that thought…