As I write this blog, we are in the run up to the Winter break at Universities.  I wanted to focus on this break particularly, because many of us have a manic autumn term, and the break is our chance to rest and recuperate.  Except, actually, it becomes a time to cram in all those other things we just didn’t manage to fit in during the term.  Vitae’s ‘Impact of COVID-19 on Researchers’ survey (Feb-Mar 2021) showed that 58% of those surveyed found it impossible to do the research they had planned during COVID, and so now, many of us are having to play catch up.  Whilst this research time was lost, in fact it was replaced by peer reviewing, writing papers, and administration: creating more work for later on.

Redrawing the boundaries between work and life

I’ve noticed that post-COVID it’s hard for some of us to redraw the lines between ‘home’ and ‘work’ – as we’re working differently now, often working more hours from home.  The habits we established during lockdown of working days that bleed into home life are persisting, (it’s not really surprising – they are existing in the same space!).  It can seem quite easy to slip into not really finishing work at a certain time, because our desk is right in front of us, so we can easily end up back at it, doing another few hours (guilty!).  During and since the lockdowns, working from home, many of us actually worked more hours than we would have if we were in the office.  A US survey found that on average the working day has increased by 48 minutes post-lockdown; in the UK it was 2 hours extra. Vitae’s survey showed that more of the surveyed researchers were working over 50 hours a week in February 2021 compared to June 2020 and pre-COVID (although it is also worth noting that a good proportion had at this point not returned to pre-COVID hours).  Mid- and senior researchers were more likely to be working increased hours.  Vitae also reported that researchers with caring responsibilities – especially women – had also seen a considerable increase in their working hours.  Yet working more hours doesn’t necessarily mean we are more productive.  After a certain point (50 hours) working more hours becomes unproductive.  This is a particularly pressing issue in academia, where overwork is normalised.  So I want to underscore separating productivity out from the amount of hours we actually work.

Rest as ‘activity’, work as ‘load’

Relaxation with book and coffee

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang explains in Rest (2016), that our productivity is actually inextricably linked to rest.  Rest is a vital component of being able to work well.  It shouldn’t just be something we fit in around work, when we find the time.  When I think of rest I picture barely moving at all, and maybe immersion in a kind of blissful meditation.  Indeed, in its very earliest etymology ‘rest’ meant repose and sleep and even inactivity.  It also connotes freedom from trouble and distress.

Yet, actually rest is active – for example when we sleep our brain is busy processing the day’s events and repairing our body.  Getting good sleep is crucial to healthy functioning: physical and mental health is optimised by 7-8 hours sleep.  Unfortunately, that’s not always possible for all of us.  The NHS does offer CBT-I for insomnia, and the Sleepful app and work originating from Loughborough University, makes this more accessible.  This might not necessarily mitigate the effects of having to get up to feed babies, or for other reasons, but tools like Loughborough’s daily sleep diary can allow us to understand where our problems lie so we can take some action.

Research in Psychology shows that there are long term negative consequences to ‘incomplete’ recovery’ – i.e. not resting during and at the end of the day.  Specifically, setting boundaries around work – making ourselves stop working and giving ourselves time away from work – reduces the load that we have to carry into the next day (See Meijman & Mulder in Psychological Aspects of Workload (1998)).  If we think about this as an actual physical load that we are putting in our bag to take with us and wear through work the next day, then each bit of stress adds up into a kind of physical weight on us.  If we’re not giving ourselves time away to put that load down we end up carrying it all – and we get tired, stressed and burnt out (amongst other possible effects).

Giving ourselves permission to rest

According to Soojung-Kim Pank rest is actually a skill, we can learn to do it better.  So if:

  1. rest is a skill we can work on, and
  2. the idea of work and rest as binaries is a historical construct, and we would in fact work better if we took rest…

what can we give ourselves permission to say no to, or yes to, so we can get some rest?  Either during the working day or after it?

  • What tasks take our attention away from the important stuff and make us pile up work for later? Are there any non-essential or limited benefit tasks we can drop?
  • Are there any ways that we can collaborate with our colleagues to lighten our load?
  • Barrett et al (2021) advise to avoid decision fatigue by making our most important decisions first thing in the day.
  • What do we need to tell ourselves to give ourselves permission to stop working and indeed take time off?
  • What rules should we be setting around our working time? (Particularly so we can minimise distractions and interruptions which may end up in work piling up later). Soojung-Kim Pang suggests that bursts of time (4-5 hours) uninterrupted can allow us to concentrate on our cognitively demanding tasks – this might be difficult to achieve, but could the principle of working in uninterrupted bursts help us?
  • How can we effectively detach from work? What do we need to stop doing or leave behind?  What do we need to start doing?
  • Where might we disconnect from phone and email to help give ourselves a rest?

Some things that we can try and do to help us rest are to ‘recharge’ and ‘refocus’.  For recharging we can think about ‘What gives us energy?’, ‘What do we enjoy doing, that we could try to do a bit more of?’  Perhaps we love swimming or going to the theatre, or talking walks across crisp frost.  This can help us refocus.  We know that rest is a skill we can work on, and by doing this it improves our capacity to work.  So actually we don’t need to feel guilty about undertaking activities such as this that take us away from work.  We’re actually allowing ourselves space away from work so that we can work better.

So as we approach the Winter break, let’s set down our heavy work bags for a moment and give ourselves some time to

REST: Where can we step away from work?

RECHARGE: What will help us feel energised?

REFOCUS: What will we tell ourselves about the benefit of such activities?

In reality it is really challenging to claw back our time, particularly when we have lots of external demands and pressures (UCU in the UK is actively campaigning about this now).  Recognition for the need for planned time off is beginning to permeate, in companies (see for example Soojung-Kim Pank’s Shorter, 2020) and through research.  Alongside various campaigns and initiatives to create better workloads – such as the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers, which many UK universities have signed – we can also make small changes.  It is possible, if we make these small changes, that we can begin to change our work cultures.  Now, more than ever, we do need to take the time to rest.  There are very real physical and wellbeing benefits from giving ourselves space and time to rest.  What small changes could you make that could bring a bit more rest into your life?  I hope this blog has given a boost to your giving yourself permission to take time off: you deserve it!