the intensification of work and the notion of work/life balance

An interesting blog post by Nick Osbaldiston, reflecting on a study they undertook into the working lives of academics. The original focus was quantitative, with some of the findings detailed in the post:

• Academics in our study (n=155) reported working on average 9 hours per day
• However, Full-Time Ongoing Academics reported an average of 9.24 hours per day (9.36 for fixed term employees)
• Interestingly, casual/sessional academics were reporting an average of around 6 and a half hours – but we were unsure how much they were employed to do here.
• Research only academics were working the most over teaching/research and teaching only academics
• All cohorts (Full-time through to Sessionals) were reporting workingsometimes on the weekend
• Academics in our study reported around 2.79 leisure hours a day – however see below – with no differences in gender at all
• When controlling for caring duties and gender, we were surprised to see nothing significant in reporting of leisure hours (again see below)
• We found a weak correlation (r=.181) between work hours and publications reported to us in the study (still significant at p < .05)
• Most participants agreed with the statement that they feel more pressure to work harder and were mostly in disagreement with the idea that the university provides good options for work/life balance (though parents were a little more ambivalent here).

However they go on to point out that this is complicated by the fact that it’s “hard to ‘switch off’ as an academic because your identity is fused with it in so many ways”. The quantitative data on workloads is important but it doesn’t tell the full story because the work/leisure distinction on which it’s predicated often won’t map onto occupational realities very neatly. Take this blog post as an example: I’m writing it at 8:15am, I’m enjoying writing it, it’s something I’m undertaking voluntarily, it’s a distraction from work I am being paid to do, no one in relation to whom I am an employee will either praise or criticize me for having written it. But it contributes to preparation for a book I’m writing and surely the book is part of my work? Nonetheless, no one is paying me for the book, I have no part of my labour time allotted to it by an employer and any contribution to my career ensuing from the book exceeds formal structures of reward and recognition within institutions I’m part of.

Ambiguous features like this make work/life balance a tricky dichotomy. It makes sense within a structured career, where rewards and recognition are formally incentivized through an institutionally defined trajectory. People might move jobs but the career structure is something that carries between institutions. However the less structured this career becomes, the more activity that feels like ‘work’ (such as the self-development and self-promotion that become more crucial as a corollary) escape the formal institutional sphere of work. Throw in a portfolio career, all the more so if it’s motivated by ‘passion’ and the work/life balance dichotomy comes to seem remarkably crude. But there are institutional hooks, organisations still capitalize on personal motivation even if the biographical embedding of an individual within institutions becomes profoundly messier than it once was. As Nick argues, “if we overdo the idea that being an academic is a lifestyle and vocation, that we legitimize the intensification of workloads and pass on the need to ‘balance’ to individuals – all part of the neoliberal responsibilisation of the person“.

Therefore I’d like to understand the complexity of what I see as the intensification of work in terms of the multiplication of roles. Roles are, as Margaret Archer puts it, greedy: we can always do more and a crucial part of our everyday reflexivity involves negotiating between the competing demands of roles when we have finite attentional, temporal and emotional resources. In this sense, we can see the intensification of academic labour in terms of the decoupling of multiple roles from particular organisations (e.g. my role as an academic writer exceeding my connection to a university that employs me) and a growing greediness of those multiple roles which leads to a pull away from non-occupational roles. It’s a much more complex process than can be captured in terms of the blurring of boundaries between ‘work’ and ‘life’.

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