University of North Carolina School of Medicine
My graduate degree is in industrial/organizational psychology. I spent years studying how to make organizations bigger and better and how to make workers happier, more efficient, and motivated to work harder. I also learned strategies to motivate workers who slacked off and wasted not only their time but also the time of others. Yes, there were certainly glimpses of concern for health and wellness of workers, but the overarching theme was clear: Successful people work hard, and hard workers tend to be successful. Common quips about ways to be successful include: “Keep your nose to the grindstone,” “put your shoulder to the wheel,” “the early bird catches the worm,” and “reach for the stars.” The message is clear and consistent: Successful workers are expected to keep busy. This bias is particularly salient in higher education. Including my time as a student, I have been in higher education for over 40 years. In all that time, if I asked someone how they were doing, the most consistent response was some variation on, “I’m really busy,” or “I’m swamped.”
Higher education has a long history of expecting faculty members to do a lot, and then to do more—to accept one more committee assignment, advisee, or course overload. Many times in my career as a faculty member, a department chair or provost would make a request of me, knowing full well I was already taxed to my limits, to do one more thing that “wouldn’t take much time.” In such situations, nearly every request is deemed essential to the campus, an opportunity for career advancement, a personal favor to the person making the request, or aid to a student in a jam. As a result, faculty members find themselves mired in tasks that are vitally important to someone. The resulting busyness is taken as proof of one’s loyalty to the campus and commitment to the expected advancement of a career. The problem is that once excessive busyness is accepted as evidence of a faculty member’s commitment to the campus or a career, it can be weaponized. In the name of equity of effort, anyone not overwhelmed can be pushed to step up their commitments. Within higher education it raises eyebrows to see a faculty member who is not late for committee meetings, racing to get to class, carrying a stack of papers to grade, or displaying some other overt signs of being stressed by long hours of work. We may not like it, but we become so accustomed to faculty members being busy we begin to see being overwhelmed as the standard. In too many ways we respect the amazing amount of tasks some are able to accomplish.
Unfortunately, excessive busyness can be counterproductive in the long run. Those who are completely occupied with tasks of today have little to no time to devote to strategic planning and forthcoming challenges (Schisow, 2018). Those who are busy to the point of fatigue frequently face emerging health challenges.
It is time to seriously challenge the overworked = good academic citizen we find throughout higher education.
Fortunately, there are those within higher education who already advocate for effective work with a reasonable expectation of time committed, rather than the idea of accepting additional assignments to the point of excessive busyness. Early into a new job of building a faculty development center at a medium-sized midwestern university, I had the opportunity to speak with the president in the hallway. He asked how I was doing. I told him I had many projects moving forward and that I was working long hours every day, seven days a week, to get the teaching center up and running quickly. He looked concerned and said, “That is unfortunate. When I approved your hire, it was because I thought you were an effective faculty developer. What is it that you are struggling with the most that would require such long hours?” That put me on my heels. Wasn’t I supposed to be grinding out accomplishments, gritting my teeth and foregoing a personal life, all to prove my value as a dedicated and hardworking member of the campus? I didn’t realize it at the time, but that president’s perception of effectiveness was what we need in higher education. My perception was misguided. Working to the point of exhaustion should not be a badge of honor, it should be a cause for concern. If working effectively across a regular workweek was the standard in higher education, rather than stacking one task on top of another, individuals could work a reasonable number of hours per week, without having colleagues look at them askance and question their commitment.
Despite the longstanding expectations of being on many committees, having long lists of advisees, and teaching overloaded courses as necessary to being successful and showing loyalty, there is a solid, and growing, position that the best employees are not the ones who are putting in the longest hours and working on weekends. More leaders than ever are concerned about the sustainability of individuals engaging in excessive work and the resulting burnout. To be successful in the long run, working hard and efficiently for a reasonable number of hours should be desired over the metric of being overwhelmed.
It is imperative that we disabuse ourselves of the number of hours worked as some indication of commitment, duty, and loyalty. This is not a call to work less, to be less committed, or accept lower quality outcomes. It is a change in focus. We need to see individuals as successful when they work hard for a reasonable number of hours and maintain a strong track record of accomplishing work outcomes. We need to allow for a person to have a healthy work-life harmony and still be respected as a valuable and effective colleague.
1. Where do you think we got the idea that being busy is expected of faculty members and that those who are not busy are somehow not “doing their fair share?”
2. Think of 3 to 5 of the most effective individuals you know at your institution. To what extent does the perceived amount of work they do impact your perception of their value to the institution?
3. Is there a person at your institution that you feel works at, or about, 40 hours per week during the academic year and is well respected by faculty, students, and administrators? If not, explain why you feel such individuals don’t exist at your institution. What would it take for the perception to change? If yes, explain what you think contributes to that individual holding such a positive reputation while working less hours than the other faculty members or administrators.
Fletcher, P. (November 13, 2020). Work-life balance is over: Let’s talk about work-life harmony. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbeshumanresourcescouncil/2020/11/13/work-life-balance-is-over-lets-talk-about-work-life-harmony/?sh=1d3df6565b48
McMillan, H. S., Morris, M. L., & Atchley, E. K. (2011). Constructs of the work/life interface: A synthesis of the literature and introduction of the concept of work/life harmony. Human Resource Development Review,10(1), 6–25. https://doi.10.1177/1534484310384958
Schisow, J. (2018). The ‘business of busyness’: How productivity keeps us from preparing for the future. B & T Weekly. https://www.bandt.com.au/business-busyness-productivity-keeps-us-preparing-future/
Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2011). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.
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