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August 25, 2013 / Damien Irving

Holiday guilt (and work-life balance)

I recently returned from a 3-week vacation at the family beach house. Since sharing travel photos isn’t really in keeping with the theme of this blog, I wanted to talk about holiday guilt instead. You see, I tried my very best to forget about work while I was away, but often found myself sneaking off to check my email. In fact, even when I was out enjoying the sun with everyone else, my holiday reading consisted of a backlog of unread journal papers as opposed to a novel or sports magazine.

The unfortunate truth is that this happens every time I go on vacation. Hell, I even get pangs of guilt on weekends and public holidays. I suspect (or at least hope) that I’m not alone here. Most weather/climate scientists work on long term research projects that have a very distant (or non-existent) end-point, which means there is always more work to do. As such, any time spent away from work feels like a missed opportunity. In order to lessen these feelings of guilt, we sneak work-like activities into our holidays and weekends, and work late / arrive early at the office whenever we get the chance. These behaviours take the edge off our guilt in the short term, but are surely not good for our sanity (or productivity, as I’ll argue below) in the long run.

Towards the end of my vacation, thoroughly dismayed at my inability to shake the holiday guilt, I came across two key articles that gave me hope for a cure. The first was a post on the Scientific American blog, by a tenured (i.e. permanent) professor at Harvard. Promising young professors in America are often started on a “tenure-track” contract of several years duration, during which time they are scrutinized and closely evaluated at every turn. Radhika Nagpal describes many of her tenure-track colleagues as overworked, stressed and generally unhappy, trying to keep pace in a profession where 80-hour weeks are the norm. After a liberating conversation at a party back in 2003, Nagpal decides that she will not let work take over her life. She sets aside time for her family, sets strict limits on her work hours, and generally places a strong emphasis on enjoying herself. The end result? She gets tenure and has a great time doing it.

The second was a post titled Why Crunch Mode Doesn’t Work, which provides a nice summary of the large body of evidence suggesting that in the long-term, useful worker output is maximized near a five-day, 40-hour work week. Productivity drops immediately upon starting overtime and continues to drop until, at approximately eight 60-hour weeks, the total work done is the same as what would have been done in eight 40-hour weeks. In his concluding remarks, the author points out that people crunch (work overtime for long periods) because they haven’t really thought about the job being done. They have learned only the importance of appearing to do their best, as opposed to really doing their best.

Taking these two articles, you could reasonably argue that an improved work-life balance (which includes forgetting about work when you’re at the family beach house) can actually improve work/career outcomes, as opposed to hinder them. At some level I think we all know this makes sense, so take a step back this week and consider whether you are really doing your best at work. Like me, you might find that those extra hours are doing nothing more than appeasing some irrational, misplaced guilt.

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