Brian McNeil sings a song called Sell you labour not your soul. The chorus goes: “Young and old, true and bold/ Sell your labour not your soul/ Solidarity's your goal - join the union”. It invariably involves a lot of audience foot stamping and fist waving.
I was reminded of this song during a conversation with my ‘leadership mentor’ a few months ago. NIHR sent a guy up to Newcastle to watch me at work, feedback on my leadership style, and discuss my career direction with me. My mentor had worked with lots of people funded by NIHR, so when he asked which UK academics I really wanted to be like, he knew the names I reeled off. “If you want to be like them,” he said, “you’re going to have to work more hours”. Then he laughed at me when I told him the university already got enough of my soul and said, “well you know the old saying: ‘if you’re not a socialist by the time you’re 20, you haven’t a heart; if you’re still one by the time you’re 40, you haven’t a brain’”. I still have a few years left to make the full transition.
|All the images on work:life balance were cheesy. But I thought you'd be impressed by this photo of Brian McNeill playing the double-kneck bouzouki|
There are people at the university that I strongly feel don’t get paid enough to work more than their contracted hours. But that’s not me – I get paid plenty well enough. And it’s not that I don’t feel passionate about (most of) what I do, or find myself enjoying thinking about it when I’m running or climbing hills, or sometimes get so engrossed in it that I’m still at my desk way past home time. I just think there should be more to life than work. That my life, and work, are both better for there being more to life than work.
I know there are many, many people working in public health research (and in lots of other areas) who work more than their contracted hours. In fact, my contract is a little vague about what my ‘contracted hours’ might be. Sometimes it seems like working all the time is the only way to be successful – somehow ‘good’ means ‘lots’. There seems no way to do everything that you want, or have, to do without working all the hours.
Academia is inherently a competitive venture. There is no absolute benchmark of good enough – it’s only ever relative to what other people manage. When one person starts churning out twice as much as anyone else by working longer and longer hours, it puts pressure on the rest of us to do the same. To keep up. Before you know it, you feel guilty every Sunday afternoon you don’t spend at your laptop.
But I have also come across well respected, and undoubtedly successful, academics who tell me how important it is to them not to start work before 8.30am, and not to leave the office after 6pm. Not just because it makes their lives better, but because this is the role model they want to be to those around them. These are not people who are doing sneaky work at home that they don’t let on about. They just seem to be focused in what they agree to do, to do it efficiently, and then to go home and do something else.
It is this type of person that I really want to be like. For me, the challenge is the focus and efficiency, not finding the energy to stay at my desk until midnight – although I would also struggle with that. Every Sunday afternoon that I spend at my laptop I feel that I have failed. I promise myself that next week I will focus more and be more efficient. I list the ways that I waste time and the things I should never have agreed to do. Instead of feeling guilty when I’m not working, I feel guilty when I am.
You can’t ever win.