Working hard or hardly working?: What’s the healthiest option?


So I’ve been working half-time this semester, while recovering from the loss of my father and helping my partner recover from major surgery. The end of the month marks my return to full-time work. My experiment in working less has got me wondering why more senior academics don’t switch to half time, instead of early retiring. It’s certainly been easier to fit exercise in. I’ve walked the dog a fair bit. I’ve even read some fiction. Sleep wasn’t always easy but with only one class to teach, I had to time catch up.

Lest you think I’m returning to work just in time for summer, which academics have off anyway, let me tell you that my life isn’t like that.  It’s true friends and family outside academia wonder what I do once classes end. I  do a lot. A big part of my summer work is graduate student supervision. And my own writing and research, which is 40% of my job. And preparing two new classes for the fall. Like me most of the grad students’ time during the school year is taken up with undergrad teaching but come summer the pace picks up. First PhD defense of the summer was this Monday morning. It’s also academic conference season and I’ve spent the last few weekends at conferences. I wrote my questions for the defense on the flight home from San Diego.

I’ve been listing the cities and countries as Facebook status updates: San Francisco, Burlington (Vermont), San Diego, Austria, Calgary, Sweden, Scotland….

But I don’t win the “who is the busiest competition?” I wasn’t even close. The friend with the busiest schedule (he says he’s easily bored) listed no fewer than 4 workshops and conferences, 1 summer school, finishing grading for two courses, reviewing two tenure files, two doctoral defences in Paris,  7 overdue papers, and talks in Quebec, Paris, London, Cardiff, York, Warwick, Toronto, Calgary, Florence and Braga. He also planned to teach in two different summer schools.

Working less is something academics find hard to do. For me, it took the death of my father and both parents in law over the course of the past two years. It’s been a rough couple of years. During that same time period I also lost three of the family’s dogs. Not the same sort of loss but they took their toll too.  As well, two friends from high school died, both my age, one from cancer and the other from ALS. It got hard not to think about my own mortality and how I want to spend my time. Life really is very short. I teach a course on death and I’ve written about death but now it’s getting up close and personal.

So why not just retire early? I’m too young but I’ve got friends in other fields doing the count down. My stated plan is to retire at 68. I’m a fan of round numbers and I started work as a professor at 28. A forty year career sounds about right. And I’m only a three years past the halfway mark.

Financial considerations aside, the thing is I love my job. I feel like I’m still mid-career in terms of teaching and writing and books and papers and conferences and ideas. I’m very excited about what’s ahead and  I’d need two or three careers to get it all done. I met with a publisher recently at a conference and started enthusing about the three book projects I’d take on, if I had time to write books, which I don’t really!

You might think the health arguments would be in favour of early retirement. But they’re not, not at all. See Retire Early, Die Early. It turns out that for healthy workers, retiring even a year early raises the risk of mortality.

If you have the financial resources to assume a life of leisure, why not do so? Newly published research provides a stark and compelling answer: You will likely hasten your own death. That’s the conclusion of a research team led by Oregon State University’sChenkai Wu and Robert Stawski. They report that, in a large-scale longitudinal study, “early retirement was associated with increased mortality risk.” This held true for both healthy and less-than-healthy retirees, and was independent of a variety of socioeconomic and lifestyle-related factors. The longitudinal study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, featured 2,956 older Americans who participated in the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study. They were periodically surveyed from 1992 (when all were still working) to 2010 (when all were fully retired).

So how about the part-time option? Unlike most high achieving/earning jobs, professors can do this easily. According to my collective agreement I can switch to “reduced responsibility” at any time. Keep the exact job I’ve got and do it half-time. That’s rare.

What version of this appeals to me? Teach the fall term in Canada and then spend winter in Arizona, California, Australia, New Zealand, and other warm philosophically rewarding environments. That’s just my dream, I know. I can’t afford it but it’s fun to think about.

The healthiest version of all might be part-time year round. A study that just came out said three days a week work is ideal after the age of 40. Subjects were given cognitive assessments and “those participants who worked about 25 hours a week tended to achieve the best scores.”

“Work can be a double-edged sword, in that it can stimulate brain activity, but at the same time, long working hours and certain types of tasks can cause fatigue and stress which potentially damage cognitive functions,” the report said. Colin McKenzie, professor of economics at Keio University who took part in the research, said it would appear that working extremely long hours was more damaging than not working at all on brain function. The figures suggest that the cognitive ability of those working about 60 hours a week can be lower than those who are not employed.

I have thoughts about why more professors don’t do this. We love our research and for most of us we’d only give up teaching. So my job is 40% teaching, 40% research, and 20% service. When I switched to half-time this semester I really only cut back on undergraduate teaching.  By that math, I did 20% less, not 50% less.

If that’s what switching to half-time is like then it’s really half the pay for 20% less work. And that doesn’t feel quite right.

I know, I know. We could write fewer papers, go to fewer conferences, referee fewer papers, edit fewer journals, etc etc. But I think we don’t because really we love it.

A recent piece in the The Economist, Why do we work so hard?, really hit home.  The author argued we work so hard because work is, for those of us lucky enough to have certain kinds of jobs, the most rewarding thing in our lives.

Here is the alternative to the treadmill thesis. As professional life has evolved over the past generation, it has become much more pleasant. Software and information technology have eliminated much of the drudgery of the workplace. The duller sorts of labour have gone, performed by people in offshore service-centres or by machines. Offices in the rich world’s capitals are packed not with drones filing paperwork or adding up numbers but with clever people working collaboratively.

The pleasure lies partly in flow, in the process of losing oneself in a puzzle with a solution on which other people depend. The sense of purposeful immersion and exertion is the more appealing given the hands-on nature of the work: top professionals are the master craftsmen of the age, shaping high-quality, bespoke products from beginning to end. We design, fashion, smooth and improve, filing the rough edges and polishing the words, the numbers, the code or whatever is our chosen material. At the end of the day we can sit back and admire our work – the completed article, the sealed deal, the functioning app – in the way that artisans once did, and those earning a middling wage in the sprawling service-sector no longer do.

The fact that our jobs now follow us around is not necessarily a bad thing, either. Workers in cognitively demanding fields, thinking their way through tricky challenges, have always done so at odd hours. Academics in the midst of important research, or admen cooking up a new creative campaign, have always turned over the big questions in their heads while showering in the morning or gardening on a weekend afternoon. If more people find their brains constantly and profitably engaged, so much the better.

Smartphones do not just enable work to follow us around; they also make life easier. Tasks that might otherwise require you to stay late in the office can be taken home. Parents can enjoy dinner and bedtime with the children before turning back to the job at hand. Technology is also lowering the cost of the support staff that make long hours possible. No need to employ a full-time personal assistant to run the errands these days: there are apps to take care of the shopping, the laundry and the dinner, walk the dog, fix the car and mend the hole in the roof. All of these allow us to focus ever more of our time and energy on doing what our jobs require of us.

So I’m still mulling what the ideal life would be like! One thing I know for sure is that I love real honest to God vacations. Time in my canoe in Algonquin Park and time spent riding bikes and sleeping in tents really means a lot to me. When I’m working I’m happy to work hard but I also like my time off.

One last thought about work patterns and flexibility. I’ve  been thinking lots about how time consuming parenting teenagers can be. It feels pretty intense. Here’s the case for taking parental leave when your kids are teenagers.

How about you? Do you work too hard? Would you rather work less? If you could work less, would you? What’s your ideal retirement age? Any and all thoughts welcome! I know academics lead privileged lives and we’re very lucky to have such wonderful careers so feel free to broaden the discussion! 

Bring on all the big ideas! Balancing career and family, work and fun, what’s the best mix for you? Does thinking about death spur you to make different choices?


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