Why is a healthy work-life balance in the world of academia so hard?

An elusive goal

Why does academia pose such a tough challenge when trying to balance work and life? Is it the timelines and deadlines, and the perceived or real need and desire for recognition that lead to the long hours?

At some stage, almost everyone in higher education asks themselves whether this work-life imbalance is the only way to succeed in academic jobs. Is spending stress-free time with family and friends, or having any semblance of a personal life, just an illusion, especially for early-career researchers laying the foundation for their academic careers?

In what follows, we discuss what makes it so hard to find a balance and  offer some tips to consider for restoring a healthy work environment:


1.    Multitasking is an academic job requirement

To be an academic is to take on at least five jobs in one; none for which you are fully trained for. There never seem to be enough working hours in the day for it all. Therefore, setting boundaries and developing expert time-management skills are a must. Typically, a working week will require that most academic professionals allocate their time and attention while simultaneously playing the role of:

  •     Teacher: Regardless of the assigned course load, the classes for which you are responsible will require curriculum development, preparation, setting and grading assignments and exams, and the administration of student results.
  •     Customer-service manager: Not wishing to equate institutions of higher learning with commercial enterprises, there is still a striking similarity in dealing with the constant stream of faculty-related issues. Make-up tests and other exemptions or exceptions; queries about grades and reviews; endless emails either asking for clarification on academic content or requesting a repeat of administrative detail such as test dates or scope of exams. Lately, in a digital age, policing plagiarism and participating in ethics or disciplinary hearings have also become part of the work.
  •     College coach: The university is designed to be a collegial affair. As academics grow in stature, they progressively take on leadership and mentoring roles for graduate students and junior colleagues. Committee work, conferences and peer review are par for the course.
  •     Researcher and author: In the quiet hours when you retreat to your office or home study, there is finally time to tend to the single most important criterion by which your value as an academic will be determined, namely your research and publishing.
  •     Trainer and trainee: Academic work is truly unique in one aspect. In virtually every other career, incumbents acquire a set of skills for which they are hired, they bring those skills to bear on their daily tasks and, with varying frequency, will be allowed dedicated time for further training. As an academic, on the other hand, your primary purpose is to search out that which is not yet known. Every next journal article you read or conference presentation you attend is another moment of ‘training’ and a chance to deepen your knowledge. The sheer scale of academic production globally means you can never know it all and it is already a hamster-wheel just to stay abreast of new developments in your field of interest. You are the eternal trainee. And in a similar fashion, your contributions are the training materials of your researchers-in-arms.


2.    The subjective nature of external validation

If you were a highly qualified Chartered Accountant, signing off on a multinational corporation’s final audit after months of your team’s toil with detail, the job would be done and dusted upon signature. It’s not that simple in academia though. Take your own publishing, for example. After several writer’s blocks and multiple new insights, often akin to starting over and over on the same project to meet the ever-expanding expectations you set for yourself, you eventually have to let go and allow the world to dissect and critique your work.

Uncertainty equals stress. Delayed feedback adds more stress. Unsympathetic one-upmanship from critics exacerbates raw nerves already on edge. And so it goes with most of the tasks you perform as an academic – the reliance on external validation before you can relax knowing you have hit the mark.

To be an academic means living with this potential fear of rejection, and often our only response is to apply ourselves a little differently the next time round.


3.    Academics’ educated approach to family life

Academic parents are not going to leave anything to chance if there is good information that can guide better parenting. This, too, is important work. Invariably, as high achievers who set high standards in their own careers, there is a certain model of perfection in family life and parenting that creates its own demands and stresses.

Between Foucault, Marx and Atwood on the academic family’s bookshelf, there will inevitably be a rich collection of books dealing with babies, toddlers, teenagers and sibling rivalry that may match the selection at the local public library.

In our research, the rare cases of academics who felt they managed to get the work-life balance right were those who had an active co-parent.

If there was one great outcome from Covid, it was the shift towards work-from-home (WFH) culture. More than 20% of office positions analysed will not see workers return to the office. This bodes well for female academics, who disproportionately take on a larger amount of unpaid child care and are often forced to neglect their own work or even cut down their hours. Whereas dual-academic job openings are rare and only the most exceptional academics manage to negotiate a ‘family-deal’ where their spouse is also employed at the same university, the growing WFH trend allows spouses who have previously not enjoyed the privilege and flexibility of their partner’s academic lifestyle to spend more time at home and take a more active role in family life and responsibility.

Children’s schedules are not as predictable as one would hope, and therefore, having another adult in the room whose work and deliverables are flexible enough to step in at the drop of a hat is a huge benefit. If finding work-life balance was a war, this would be Alexander the Great and his patient elephants crossing the Alps.

Sit with your partner to work out what it will take to create a new paradigm of WFH co-parenting arrangements.


4.    The variance in institutions’ ethos

There are a growing number of academic institutions that recognise how difficult it has become for academics to keep all the balls in the air. You are well-advised when next on the academic job market, to add criteria such as ‘day-care facilities, professional development programmes, flexible work, training days, tutor availability, work-from-home and academic support programmes’ to your list of must-haves.

Working in an institution that is sympathetic to the multiple demands that your job places on your time, sleep, focus, energy and enthusiasm can make the world of difference.



Life is about choices, and in every walk of life, we encounter mavericks: true geniuses of uncompromising passion. There is nothing balanced in what drives them to succeed, and mere mortals should not make the mistake of dreaming to compete like this when juggling five lives.

The most important favour you can do yourself is, to be honest about your own ambitions and priorities, as well as your own strengths and idiosyncrasies. Then whittle down the expectations or, at least, the part where you rely on others to tap you on the shoulder. Set your own goals and march to the beat of your own drum.

Pexels 2021 / image: Los Muertos Crew