Is a work-life balance only a work of fiction?

As a teacher I would work probably on average 50 hours a week, often more, rarely less, and I was efficient. That does not account for parent’s evenings, interview evenings, open days or whole weekends spent supervising Duke of Edinburgh expeditions. Teachers become experts at multi-tasking. The work load and demand on a teacher’s time is well reported and often cited as a key reason teachers leave the job that many love. The inability to find a work-life balance. It was not the reason I left teaching but it was something that, like many other teachers, was a balance I often found difficult to attain. And now I find myself working in research towards completion of a PhD in tropical ecology. I am away collecting data in another country for 3 months putting miles not just hours between myself and loved ones. I am working on average 80 hours a week, often more, rarely less and I am still efficient. So I ask myself: what is a work-life balance? How many hours of work should constitute that balance? Is it ever achievable? Questions that are not the sole ownership of the teaching profession.

The organised work bench includes: decomposition wooden blocks, Leaf press, ethanol, GPS, samples, notebooks, rope, ziplock bags, name a few
The organised work bench includes: decomposition wooden blocks, leaf press, ethanol, GPS, samples, notebooks, rope, ziplock bags, densiometer, bait…to name a few

The cliché that the right job is not work is fiction. A life exists outside of every job. Even dream jobs detract from other responsibilities to friends, family, partners, a home and other interests that make a person feel fulfilled. Pursuing a career as a researcher in tropical ecology inevitably means spending time in tropical environments to conduct experiments and carry out surveys to collect the data needed. The tropics are of course one of the most stimulating and inspiring places to spend time. The question is how much time? And at what cost? 4 months in the Philippines. 3 months in Borneo. It is a dream to work in such beautiful places yet it is not a dream to be detached from other aspects of a fulfilled life. Long field seasons inevitably disrupts personal relationships and life at home. How are such long field seasons conducive to a family life? Inevitably does there have to be a choice? As a new researcher I am unable to address such questions.

The number of hours expected for one to work in academia has been blogged and discussed before, cited as 80 or more to be a success. Yet teaching and academia are not the sole professions to suffer from increasing demands of working hours. Anna Burger discusses and outlines more clearly the trends and roots of increasing extreme working hours in Western Europe. Are longer and longer working days the foreseeable future? Or is Sweden the pioneer, setting future working days at 6 hours a day?

Taking a moment of rest in the rainforest between sampling efforts
Taking a moment of rest in the rainforest between sampling efforts

This blog entry is not to complain about the content of work I was completing as a teacher during those 50 hours or now as a researcher for 80. As a whole I enjoyed what I was doing then and what I am doing now. It is to voice the conclusion I have drawn, be it right or wrong. That attaining a work-life balance may not be the problem with the job but with the person. In many professions there is often always an endless list of things that need doing. Strike one off the list and add another to the bottom. My inability to accept that all the items are never struck off the list results in the struggle with finding this idealistic work life balance. Knowing that there are things that need to be done. I do them. To leave things incomplete is to feel incapable. To be restless when a job has been left unfinished. Are these flaws or merits in a personality? Either way the hours build up. Mentioned in this article from the Economist is the “Veblenian” explanation for long working hours, as jobs are becoming more knowledge intensive, people like being at work and hence work longer hours. An explanation I can associate with. But not a solution to a work-life balance.

The industrious ant epitomizes hard work, an apt focus taxa to study. This camponotus gigas worker, giant forest ant, one of the largest ant in existence is also aptly named
The industrious ant epitomizes hard work, an apt focus taxa to study. This Camponotus gigas worker, the giant forest ant, is one of the largest ant in existence, also aptly named.

I can’t help but listen to that voice telling me ‘don’t sit here and relax, those exam papers need marking’, ‘that lesson plan could be improved’, ‘those samples need sorting’, ‘there is a paper to read or writing to be done’. To turn that voice off is to find the compromise between being conscientious and having self-discipline to know when enough is enough. Fighting the desire to be able to complete all tasks to all deadlines in order not to let anyone down: as a teacher be this the students, colleagues, managers or myself. Not that this attitude necessarily makes me a better teacher, a better student or researcher. Neither am I denying that unrealistic expectations are often set by employers. Moving careers has clarified that a work life balance is not exclusive to teachers but can be a constant struggle across careers and professions. And that perhaps the fault partially lies in the person and not the job. Work and life are not mutually exclusive and talking about a balance between the two is misleading and inaccurate. For work is integral to life. Work should interweave its way throughout life to feel challenged and satisfied. But for want of a better term a work-life balance it is. By acknowledging these personality traits rather than blame the job, by consciously trying to overwrite them perhaps it is possible to turn the work life balance from a work of fiction into that of fact.


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