On Overworking Oneself

As I arise from bed for the third time this Saturday morning, head pounding and regretting that I haven’t been able to do what I wanted with my weekend, I would like at least to say that I shouldn’t have got so drunk last night. Sadly, I have been sober all week.

I pause to reflect on why I feel hungover, and I realise that once again I’m a victim of my own job. Why, though, has it left me bereft of life on a weekend?

Formally speaking, as a research scientist not involved in teaching, I work 9am – 5pm five days a week. I am not supposed to work evenings or weekends, and doing so is even discouraged in theory. The fact that this is so speaks to the monumental naivety of my work guidelines, and their relationship to the reality of postdoctoral research. But more than this, my experience this week speaks volumes about how managers think of their staff’s work-life balance. Learning from my current situation could be applied broadly in “the tech sector”, by which I mean most highly-skilled and time-pressured technical jobs (such as programming, game development, and of course science).

On Thursday, I had a talk to write for Friday. My boss reviewed my slides at 6pm, and made “suggestions”. My talk was at 10:30 next morning, about 1h 30m travel from my house. So, if I was to do a good job then it was unavoidable to work outside of my intended hours. The fact that there was quite a lot of work to do meant that I stayed up ’till 1am. The next day, I had 10:00 – 17:00 of endless meetings, and then came home dehydrated, overworked, and extremely tired. My current misery is directly caused by my work- I think of this situation as myself paying back to my body the physiological debt of overwork.

Now, I understand and appreciate that – despite the rules – doing well at my job requires this sort of effort on a weekly(ish) basis. I feel that I am good at my job, and I am ready to make those sacrifices when the need arises. What grates is that my employer formally believes that I don’t have to do this (and by extension that my current misery is my own fault). My boss has a different expectation: when I told him I’d been up ’till 1am, he said “I do that almost every night“. The only words I can find in response to this are a slightly patronizing “well done“.

So, let’s tackle an oft-raised issue. Is it actually my choice to be like this? I think not. If I consistently refuse to overwork myself, I will be bad at my job. I will eventually lose my job, either through performance review or through lack of continued funding. These are the realities of research. Hence, it is implicitly expected from me that I  build up physiological debt to my body on a regular basis, by overworking.

Now, as I’ve said, I don’t mind that per se. What grates is that my employer and my boss don’t hold the same view on whether I do it, or whether I should do it. Since they can’t agree, the issue is essentially ignored, and I am left to pick up the pieces and waste my weekend. This is bad for my health. If the frequency of overworking were any higher, I would have long-term health or mental health issues. This is common, and during my PhD I suffered from these problems.

I think employers must make a concerted effort to recognize that what they say staff should work and what staff actually work are not often the same thing. They should resist the temptation of cynically assuming their employees work fewer hours than they’re supposed  to – the reality is often the opposite. They should recognize that when this is so, employees are effectively overworking because they feel they have to – this is bad for the health of the employee in the long run, hence bad for the employer.

Simply recognizing these realities and keeping track of them may start to reveal strategies for coping, or at the least help managers understand when they should allow their staff to ease off a little.

Work-life balance is more than a perk which should be afforded to well-performing individuals. It is a need which produces good long-term employees. If sated, it benefits companies and institutions in the long run.

About stoove

A physicist, researcher, and gamesman. Likes to think about the mathematics and mechanics behind all sorts of different things, and writing up the thoughts for you to read. A competent programmer, enjoys public speaking and mechanical keyboards. Has opinions which might even change from time to time.
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