The Work-Life Tightrope

A while back I wrote on the practical implications of an 80h working week. Here’s an alternative stab at a work-life balance: The first 2 hours in the morning, you’re preparing: getting your son fed, watered, and dressed to go to nursery with his mum. Then work, 9 hours or so from leaving the house to getting home – hours which typically fill with teaching and admin commitments which are more pressing, which chime their deadlines more urgently, than the research you’re actually paid to do.

Then 3 hours of cooking tea for grown-ups, putting the boy to bed, and eating. If you’re a sleeper (all 3 of us are) then you can add in 8 hours right there. Leaving 2 late evening hours, which you know should be dedicated to more work (and which often are) but which also are your only real time to relax, put your feet up, chat, dig out the Frasier box-set, whatever floats your boat.

And all that for 5 days a week. Weekends are needed for other things – for seeing friends and family; for taming the garden, fixing the house; for getting some exercise, some air; perhaps watching some birds, or some rugby.

So factoring in your (mercifully short) commute, that’s approximately 40 hours + scraps to dedicate to work. The very idea of a 70-80 hour week is simply not compatible with such a regime, but, like many others, you accept this. You accept that you will always be surrounded (and inevitably overtaken) by colleagues more willing and able than you are to make the requisite sacrifices. You accept the fact that you are effectively working part-time – despite exceeding your contracted hours, and receiving none of the compensations and considerations due to the part-time worker – and you accept this because the balance you’ve found seems to work just about OK.

The balance may be OK, but it’s precarious: because then you miss a couple of days through sickness. Nothing serious, just a bug badass enough to incapacitate you as an intellectual being. And because of those two days, you’re fucked for a month. At least. The careful order in which Stuff Needs to Happen has been disrupted; deadlines have piled upon unopened emails upon cancelled meetings upon unread papers. The time you’d set aside for writing, and for actually doing science, has been eaten up by stuff you expected to have under control.

This is the work-life tightrope. And once you teeter, you can never regain that perfect posture. You can speed up, and hope you reach firm ground before something fails – although the assumption that there is firm ground out there is a dangerous one. You can stop, fall, count on a safety net not too far below. Or you can muddle on with some semblance of control, knowing all the time that the slightest additional vibration may be the killer one.

Note: All of the above is – literally – the product of a fevered imagination. I accept no responsibility for its content.