In this post, Dr Enitome Bafor, based at the University of Benin in Nigeria, shares her top tips for researchers striving to achieve a balance between their personal and professional lives.
In an article in Human Relations, work/life balance is described as the extent of satisfaction and engagement of a person with his or her work and non-work roles, in equal measure. Rather than attempting to give equal amounts of time to work and non-work issues, it is more helpful to think broadly about your personal and professional goals and priorities, and the way you use your time. Achieving balance between work and life brings a general feeling of fulfilment and satisfaction – and stress and depression levels will be much lower.
An imbalance in work and life is often caused by a conflict in work and non-work roles. Should these conflicts occur, researchers may be weighed down by exhaustion and psychological distress, which leads to poor research outputs. I believe female scientists are more likely to be entangled in work/life conflicts, particularly those who have families, as they often have the primary responsibility for caring for families.
Researchers face multiple pressures, including deadlines, funding, grant applications, proposal development, reviews and manuscript writing. I believe that burn-out, stress and emotional trauma are particularly acute problems for female researchers and early-career researchers, as they struggle to deal with the prevalent “publish or perish” culture.
An ideal work/life balance is:
- To effectively combine and manage multiple responsibilities at home, and at work with no feelings of guilt or regret
- Being able to work flexibly, such that performing good research and managing family/other commitments become easier
- Being able to have good quality life, good career progression, time for friends and family, and time for yourself
I have outlined a few practical ways to achieve balance between our research work and life in general:
Achieving balance is far more achievable with organizational support, such as flexible work hours, child care, paid maternity leave and many similar assistance services. As a researcher, it’s a good idea to search for positions at organizations/institutions with progressive policies like these, which focus on the desired work outputs rather than “face time” or extensive overtime.
Utilizing modern technologies
Use the internet, mobile devices and smart portable devices to help you find a balance! These devices can help us to use our time much more flexibly, by enabling us to conduct research-related activities in non-work spaces – e.g. answering emails or reading articles at home – and allowing us to bring non-work activities to work when necessary – e.g. online shopping or scheduling appointments.
It is important to exercise common sense and restraint here, though, so that our home lives don’t become overtaken with our work lives and vice versa. According to an article in the International Journal of Business and Management, entitled ‘Work-life balance in academia: experiences of lecturers in Switzerland’, the inability to ‘switch off’ from academic work has negative effects on researchers’ health and wellbeing.
Creating strong networks of social support can help you maintain a better work/life balance. For social support to be effective, it is important to be open about your needs and struggles – and to readily accept and offer help when needs arise.
Finally, a vital step is to identify what it is you actually want. Self-care is very important, as is finding the work/life balance that works for you as an individual. Cultivating a positive, optimistic outlook is key, as is regular assessment (which may be monthly or weekly) of your priorities and professional and personal goals. Such assessment will help you make strategic decisions about responsibilities, tasks and time management. As much as possible, be realistic about your feelings, goals, priorities and needs – and try not to be a perfectionist in the process!
An 2006 article in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, entitled ‘The interface of work and family life’, lists some questions that are worth considering when assessing our professional lives. They include:
- When you think of work, what does it mean to you?
- What does work do for you?
- Are there supports and barriers in place that may impact on or influence your professional activities? Are there supports currently missing, but may be possible?
- Are there issues surrounding gender, race/ethnicity and privilege within professional and family relationships in your society? How do these shape your professional activities?
- Are you able to connect with your colleagues and share common interests, values, and goals?
- Do you feel alienated or isolated at work?
Every researcher or academic should regularly evaluate and assess themselves on the strengths and weaknesses of their work, and consider how much time they devote to research and compared with their personal lives. If you become aware of an imbalance, it’s time to take dedicated steps to do something about it.
On a personal note, I have faced many challenges, as I am a mother (of three children), a wife and a lecturer/researcher. When I first started work as an assistant lecturer, I was pregnant with my first child and I had just begun my MSc studies. It was an overwhelming experience and there were times when I felt frustrated, confused and discouraged. However, I remained determined to find a solution that would work for me – and I was determined to be a success story.
It took me a few years of planning, organizing, praying and making decisions, in order to determine how I could best achieve balance and success. I always planned ahead, while making room for a plan B, in case my earlier plans failed. Plus, at the end of every day, after my kids had gone to bed, I always assessed myself, by asking how I had fared that day and how I could improve tomorrow. I used this time to scribble down my thoughts and reminders.
Of course, there were always difficult days where I stayed up for long hours at night to sort out a pending task. These tasks could be either work/research-related, or family related, but I never failed to have rest days in between, in order to spend intentional time with family and friends.
I also utilize modern technologies to carry out some work from home, and to sort out domestic issues at work, in a disciplined manner. This works brilliantly for me! I also make use of social support – in my case, I always reach out to my husband for assistance or advice when needed. It is still a work in progress, because I have found that as I climb the ladder in my profession, and as my kids get older, I face new challenges and bigger responsibilities. By assessing myself regularly, I am better able to tweak my plans and schedules until I find the right work/life balance for me – and the satisfaction and success that comes from this is gratifying.
Dr Enitome Bafor is a senior lecturer in Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Benin in Nigeria