A week in the life of a YAL member
Mental health is a topic of great importance that affects us all, but early-career researchers may be disproportionally affected. To give this topic the attention it deserves, the Young Academy Leiden organized the Winter of Mental Health, in which we kept track of our work activities for one week.
We, like many other early-career scholars, often feel like time is slipping away from us and there are simply not enough hours in a day to do all the things we set out or have to do. So we carried out a diary project, to gain insight in the amount of hours we work, what we spend our time on, and the level of work fragmentation we face. We planned the entire week in advance to allow comparisons with how the week eventually turned out. How much control do we actually have over our agendas? Ultimately, we hoped to identify best practices and learn from each other in terms of how to best plan and manage our workload.
During a Young Interfaculty Lunch event on March 15, 2022, we discussed the results of the diary project with other members of the early-career community and with Mieke Cabout, coordinator of Healthy University. While at first many of the YAL members who had kept track of their diaries felt this had not been a representative week – because of COVID isolation, sick child, or an(other) emergency situation – we then discussed how all of this is in fact very common and hardly any week is without surprises. We concluded there is no such thing as a representative work week. But they typically are more than 40 hours. While this work week counted on average 41 hours, it included the diaries of members who work part time or were on (sick) leave part of the week.
We observed a lot of variety in the agendas of YAL members as we come from different faculties, hold different positions, and have different responsibilities. Nonetheless, we identified seven broadly defined categories of work activities for (but not limited to) early-career scholars:
- Research (e.g., manuscript/grant writing, brainstorming, data collection, publication process)
- Teaching (e.g., preparing slides, teaching, recording, grading, student supervision)
- Leadership/management (e.g., Principal Investigator responsibilities in a research project, committee work, people management, coordination activities)
- Outreach (e.g., presenting, social media, blogging, organizing seminars)
- Academic citizenship (e.g., official and unofficial peer review, institute and team meetings, ceremonial events, coffee with colleagues)
- PhD supervision (e.g., progress meetings, feedback, mentoring, support provision)
- Training (e.g., intervision, attending ICLON’s BKO courses or trainings by HRM Learning & Development)
There are many categories, and each contains a broad number of activities. This means there is a high risk of work fragmentation. Costs of task switching for attention and energy levels should not be underestimated. It makes it extremely difficult to get things done, particularly when working on the more challenging parts of our job (i.e., research and teaching preparation) where there is not much to be achieved in an hour before we get interrupted again. Meetings also contribute to this; the diary project revealed that we spent more than 25% of our time in (currently mostly online) meetings.
And then there are the extensive amounts of incoming and outgoing messages, including emails, Teams chat, WhatsApp groups, Slack, and other media. Some of us planned separate timeslots for emails and other small tasks. This aligns with recommended best practices, because attending to emails and other messages throughout the day can severely disrupt your flow and add to feelings of work fragmentation.
Yet it is not just the number of hours we work, the many different tasks we juggle, or the unexpected interruptions we face. Expectations matter, too. From others, but also definitely from ourselves. About what we as early-career scholars should achieve, when we should be available, that we should be flexible when scheduling meetings because senior colleagues are so busy, that we should respond willingly to requests (because can you afford to pass on opportunities as an early-career scholar?), et cetera. This often adds to work pressure and can affect mental health. Colleagues and supervisors can help a great deal with this, for instance via exemplary behavior regarding overtime and protecting each other pro-actively. For example, you can use the ‘delayed send’ function in Outlook or just be very conscious not to bother colleagues when you know they have a research day. You can also stimulate others to say “no” or “I will do this later”. You can allow others sufficient time and set realistic deadlines for them to provide input on manuscripts or grant applications. In general, you can make work pressure and well-being a topic that can be openly discussed.
We realized that we have a lot to learn from each other when it comes to planning and managing your time and workload. Here are some tips and tricks that may work for you:
Concentration and productivity
- Try to minimize the multitasking and keep tasks concentrated. When possible, focus on one or two of the above work categories for the day. You can even devote particular days in the week to certain tasks. For instance, Monday is for committee work and you try not to let it creep into other days of the week.
- Block substantial chunks of time (ideally an entire day) for activities such as research. It can be for idea development, writing, reading, etc. Learn to protect it; there are no excuses to reschedule, nor should you make an exception for another meeting because one exception can easily turn into five exceptions. It’s okay to say “no”.
- You don’t need to be available all the time and definitely not outside normal work hours. Turn off means of online communication during parts of the day and turn them back on when you actually have time and headspace to interact.
- Schedule certain tasks in line with when you do them best. If you can concentrate best in the morning, that is the moment to do focused work and rather plan meetings with students, PhDs and colleagues in the afternoon. If you have a lunch dip, that may be the moment to schedule email time.
- Set up a ‘no committee’: a small group of close colleagues and friends who can help you make big decisions, and perhaps ease the burden on saying “no” from time to time, even if it feels like missing out on an opportunity.
- Draft a task to-do list for the day, and write down one most important thing you want to get done. If you get this task done, consider the day an achievement.
- Whenever you feel you should, ask yourself: (1) Should I do this now? Should I do this now? Should I do this now? Should I do this now? Should I do this now? and (2) Who told me to do so? In Dutch: “van wie moet dat dan?” Maybe the source of expectation is not who you thought it was.
- Don’t make it a habit to work more than 8 hours a day.
- Schedule downtime in your agenda, like lunch break but also recovery activities like a morning walk (‘ommetje’), a chat with friends/colleagues, or going for a run in the afternoon.
- Keep Outlook/Teams apps from your mobile phone, so that you do not get notifications during the evening, weekend or holiday.
- Allow yourself some flexibility in your planning. Ensure to plan buffer time to accommodate common hiccups and make up for lost time because a meeting runs long for instance. Try to avoid making up for it by skipping your scheduled breaks.
- Book a holiday for two weeks in a row, at least once a year, and avoid work communication during that period.
For YAL members, this was only the beginning of exploring best practices together, and we strongly encourage other early-career scholars to engage in fruitful conversations about this and see how all of us can help each other out. No doubt the community can add to the above list of tips and tricks, and we very much welcome suggestions on this blog. At the same time, we realize that mental health is of course much broader than work stress due to busy schedules and work fragmentation. What we have also learned during the Winter of Mental Health is that challenges to mental health are not talked about enough. As YAL, we intend to build on our activities during the Winter of Mental Health and have set up a small workgroup, ultimately to create more possibilities to talk about any struggles related to mental health in academic settings.