What COVID-19 Has Taught the World of Academia about Work-Life Balance

Striking the right balance between time and energy spent on professional work versus personal life has always been a challenge for many of us in academia. Perhaps this is because teaching and research, with a hat-tip to Max Weber, is a vocation, something to which we have a calling or for which we have a passion. And that means the boundaries are inevitably porous between what we define as work and what we define as life.

But somewhere over the last few decades, professional life became all-encompassing, family life sometimes suffered and burnout from over-commitment and underappreciation became common.

In many ways, living through the COVID-19 pandemic lay bare many of our societies’ failings, fault lines and festering wounds – racism, sexism, inequality, the digital divide, barriers to access to healthcare and education. As Melinda Gates said when the Gates Foundation released their 2020 Goalkeepers Report, normally an optimistic review of advancements in poverty alleviation, “COVID has magnified every existing inequality…. We have been set back 25 years in 25 weeks.” Living through a pandemic has also reminded us what is important in life and, for many, challenged us to review our priorities.

So, despite the many tensions that changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted, at the same time, we have also been presented with a number of new opportunities. The time is ripe to consider what our new normal is and should be.


What Are The Opportunities

The biggest change, of course, has been the shift to working from home and working online.

Prior to the pandemic, there was an emerging trend towards flex-time and telecommuting across multiple professional domains. Research has shown that increased flexibility leads to greater productivity, for example, the 2021 Gartner Digital Worker Experience Study indicated that “43% of respondents said that flexibility in working hours helped them achieve greater productivity.”

Flex-time and Telecommuting

For many of us, the freedom to work from home has meant cutting out a lot of the wasted time and distraction that being in an office involves – the chit chat, the interruptions and the physical commute through traffic. We were also reminded that long hours at the office, or the pressure for those without seniority to be present for “passive face time”, does not equal greater productivity.

However, we have yet to see to what degree those who continue to work remotely may, as a MIT Sloan Management study has shown, “end up getting lower performance evaluations, smaller raises and fewer promotions than their colleagues in the office – even if they work just as hard and just as long”. It is no surprise, then, that the culture of or “presenteeism” creates anxiety, but building a culture of trust and dialogue can help temper these hidden or imagined demands.

Autonomy and Control

One of the reasons why telecommuting works is because it gives us greater spheres of control, an important concept that dates back to psychologist Julian Rotter’s 1954 theory of the “locus of control“. When it comes to the modern-day world of work, we can use this concept to see how the things we’re worried about fall into three domains: things we have control over, things we can influence, and things that are outside of our control and influence.

The degree to which we feel we can control a situation, or chart our own course, gives us an expanded sense of autonomy and, in turn, a sense of freedom. Working from home, in our own time and at our own pace (and for some of us, in our pajamas), gives many of us this sense of autonomy. And greater autonomy translates to greater job satisfaction. A Forbes 2019 article goes so far as to claim that prioritising happiness is “fundamental to employee engagement and loyalty. Happiness is the ultimate why”, the authors claim, “the most sustainable competitive advantage, and the ultimate currency in business”.


What We (Still) Have To Fight For


Visible Inequalities

The pandemic has shown that structural inequalities are even deeper than suspected. People are very easily alienated or cut off from participation in education and society if they do not have the technical resources and competencies to engage, or the appropriate space to work and study.

In the developing world, in particular, these inequalities in terms of access to the internet and decent bandwidth have been exposed. For many, the ability to cooperate or compete on an equal footing with more privileged colleagues at the same institution or at another institution half-way across the world has been compromised.

At the same time, the system that supports families with childcare, caregiving services and social safety nets has also been shown to be extremely fragile. The closure of daycare facilities, kindergartens and schools has effectively pushed women, mostly, back into old gendered roles and loaded them with a double burden of domestic and professional work. Or, resulted in women, at a rate of twice that than men, becoming unemployed due to lack of childcare.

The knock on effect in academia can be seen, for example, in the gendered research project and publication gap or in the fact that it is, once again, more difficult for people doing care work or who are pregnant (and at greater risk for severe COVID infection) to be present at in-person event, like conferences. Many of these inequalities are likely to remain post-pandemic.

Creating Boundaries

With great power, they say, comes great responsibility. One of the challenges when working from home is creating appropriate boundaries between professional and personal life.

Where you work, what times you work and for how long you work becomes more fluid. But some people struggle to disconnect or separate these domains. We are beginning to learn that multitasking is not necessarily more efficient and some have argued it’s also not necessarily good for your brain.

Employing smart time management and scheduling tools can help. Batching tasks or using the pomodoro technique – a way of chunking time and scheduling breaks – can also increase efficiency while keeping work separate.

But strategies will always need to be individualised. Some time-management issues are systemic, some are personal.

Burnout and Overload

As much as the old ways of working that led to burnout – face time at the office, constant meetings and interruptions, and the commute – have declined in a pandemic world, there are new pressures. The expectation to be constantly available, the unending ping of emails or the more intrusive ding of text messages and Zoom fatigue are part of the new landscape that needs to be managed.

In addition, while we may be spending more time with our friends and families, our professional relationships may be suffering. The social lubrication of a spontaneous meeting in a hallway, a chance encounter at a conference or a serendipitous gathering of colleagues and peers has faded to some degree. Yet, social support from both spheres of life, both personal and professional, is important for overall mental health and to balance stress.

What Will Be Our New Normal?

In late 2020, award-winning journalist, Ed Yong, wrote in The Atlantic: “Despite its epochal effects, COVID‑19 is merely a harbinger of worse plagues to come. The U.S. cannot prepare for these inevitable crises if it returns to normal, as many of its people ache to do. Normal led to this”.

For many of us, there is no going back to what was considered normal. As we learn more about the virus, the effectiveness of vaccines, and ways to mitigate and prevent infection, we may be called back to the office or we may be able to continue a hybrid model of telecommuting. Regardless, we will continue to need to find new ways of balancing our worlds of work and private life.


Pexels 2021 / image: Ketut Subiyanto