Tackling the overwork reflex in academia


How do we tackle the overwork reflex when we live and work within problematic organisational culture of overwork? Where overwork is performed as ‘busy-work’, as presenteeism through spending long hours in the office.

The overwork reflex in academia

Academia as a sector has a major problem with overwork. Overwork is implicit in the engrained patterns of performing the academic – still read as the unencumbered (read white, middle class, able-bodied, care-free, male).  

More problematic – the fact that overwork is explicitly validated and valourised. We see this in the ‘inevitability’ of overwork that is written through ‘advice’ given to those starting their careers. It is given in the ‘warnings’ doled out to women to not ‘appear’ or become pregnant.

It is in the performance indicators – the more you produce, the more money you win, the more you are a specific kind of internationally mobile – the better.  Doing all of these things, requires working a lot of hours. 

Overwork doesn’t work

Yet, we know that working long hours and multi-tasking, is ineffective. It is problematic for our health and for productivity.

Yet it persists and we become complicit in it.

I left the academy this year – in part because I could no longer do this overwork. 

I burnout. I’ve written about this before.

I’ll keep writing about it because it resonates so loudly with people reading this blog and engaging with me on social media. 

Burnout in the workplace is now recognised by The World Health Organisation. 

The negative effects of the demand for over-work are not problems that will go away.

Managing a different version of overwork

Much is said about how self-employment is another space of overwork and continual ‘hustle’. The emphasis is on being continually on and you being your brand. The work/life distinction further blurred. 

Articles abound about burnout. 

Had I jumped from a frying pan and into the fire?

My experience has been no. Not entirely.

Working hard, but not more: trying to beat the overwork reflex

In the past 4 months – I’m excluding the school summer holidays – I’ve established and grown a business from scratch (more coming on how I did this in another blog post). 

I have worked incredibly hard on an incredibly steep learning curve in a short period of time. I learned how to set up my website, got more social media marketing savvy, and learned a range of new skills. I’m still doing a lot of self-development and training (and loving it!)

And still – there are those little demon voices telling me when I rest – when I need to because of my chronic illness – I am being lazy. That I am not working enough. That I need to ‘make up’ the hours. That I am letting people down by not continually putting out content. That I am risking growth to my business by not being on the marketing all of the time. 

I will share some of my strategies for freelancing with a chronic illness in another post, here I want to discuss how I am actively trying to retrain my overwork reflex!

Pause and reflect: keep overwork in check

It is inevitable that I find it hard to not let that overwork reflex kick in- I worked in an organisational culture and sector where that was the name of the game for over 10 years. 

We live in a world saturated by our own show reels and highlights. It is very had to not fall prey to comparisonitis on occasion. 

Competitiveness in an ever crowded space is the work world we are in – we have to put the work in to be heard – and to grow – for our work to be a viable source of income for living. 

Yet, you are you. Your skills and abilities and perspectives are yours. 

They have to be tailored to, and funnelled through, work objectives or targets – or for the self-employed – our goals and clients. Yet, we cannot do our work well if we are not clear in why we are doing what we do – what is it all for?

Overwork makes us lack clarity. It means we continually feel on the backfoot because our mind is racing with all of the unfinished projects that we know will not get finished. We are thinking of all the things we want to do – the new and shiny and exciting – that we don’t have time for. We resent others for taking leisure time, or working ‘less’. 

This is corrosive – for ourselves and for working cultures. It breeds toxicity. 

Beat the overwork reflex: from reactive to proactive planning

I read this blog post about working a 4 hour day. It really made me think about how much of our overwork reflex is about signalling our worth to others – to get that external validation for ourselves.

It made me think again about what I want my work to be and do for me. I want to achieve my goals, but I don’t want to be lost in chasing them.

I’ve spoken on social media and in my online writing course about the 12 week planning routine I’ve adopted from Josephine Brooks. 

This has allowed me to gain clarity and focus on doing ‘less’ in the shorter term – in terms of focussing on one or two goals and completing them – in order to do more over the longer term. 

So far, this is working for me. I set 3 goals in August and my current 12 week plan is due for review at the end of this month. I’ve met all of my goals already – and allowed for flexibility and to think about new projects.

We can’t all be our own boss, but we can have much more control over our working patterns than we think. 

So, pause and reflect and really think about all of the work you are doing, all of the time.

Do you really need to do it all – at once? 

Could you work better, not more? 

I would love to hear what you think and continue the conversation over on Twitter or Instagram. 

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