As universities reopen, academics should consider their working hours wisely

An image showing an alarm clock with a face mask on

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Can’t mask the effects of long working days (please wear a mask)

There are some events even a pandemic cannot stop. Yes, it’s time for the annual debate about academic working hours.

The trigger for the debate is a classic: the 1996 letter written by Erick Carreira castigating a postdoc for not working every evening and weekend and for requesting some vacation time. It seems to do the rounds of social media every year or so, this time prompted by the announcement of Carreira as the new editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Carreira has since shared a statement via the JACS Twitter account explaining that the letter doesn’t reflect his current leadership approach, and that he thinks a healthy work–life balance is vital. But it seems there are plenty of other group leaders out there who are still telling their subordinates that to be a good researcher, you need to spend 80 hours a week in the laboratory. Or at least telling them that’s what their competition is doing.

Of course, Covid-19 has prevented virtually everyone from averaging that many lab hours this year. The clock-watching mentality has also been relaxed by a general acceptance that many people have been unable to be as productive as normal while pandemic restrictions have been in place – whether it’s experiments being put on hold, the demands of childcare or the increased mental burden of living in lockdown. So it’s interesting that the working hours debate has revived now, at the time when many universities worldwide are reopening departments and restarting in-person teaching for the first time since lockdown.

Pandemic restrictions might help to keep working hours in reasonable bounds

Perhaps the disruption caused by the pandemic will be the impetus needed to finally break free of unhealthy and unproductive working practices. Continuing pandemic restrictions might even help to keep working hours in reasonable bounds; restricted opening hours and social distancing rules mean that some researchers are currently only able to be present in the lab on a handful of shortened days a month. But the flipside is that more of us have become accustomed to working from home. While many academics sometimes chose to work from home in the past, the danger is that it becomes a permanent expectation on top of a day working in the lab.

The pressure to work long hours doesn’t only come from unsympathetic bosses. The competitive nature of academia might lead some to feel they have to work for longer to make up for the time they ‘lost’ earlier in the year. For others, long working days might help to distract them from the continuing chaos of coronavirus. But if you really want to drive science forward, then it’s your responsibility to make sure you still take time off. To achieve a working culture that supports shorter and more flexible working days, we all need to visibly commit to working in that way. Giving ourselves a break gives each other a break too.