The White House recently announced that it was raising the salary limit for qualifying for overtime pay, and the NIH announced it supported this move and thought that the best way to handle this for postdoctoral fellows would be to increase their base pay to be above the new limit. This has set off a discussion about postdoc pay and working hours- after all, if postdocs didn’t work more than 40 hours per week, then the new overtime pay rule would not be relevant to them.
Of course, many postdocs routinely work more than 40 hours per week. Science, and academic science in particular, has a culture that promotes long hours as a sign of dedication. According to this not uncommon line of thought, if people aren’t willing to dedicate the entirety of their life to science, they should leave it and let those who are willing to subsume the other aspects of their lives to take the jobs in academia.
People have begun pushing back against this “all in” culture as exclusionary of people who can’t subsume everything to science, such as primary caregivers and people with chronic illnesses. I agree with those arguments. But even if you don’t care about the exclusionary effect of the long hours culture, it is wrong-headed.
I have written before about my own path to realizing long hours were doing me more harm than good. If you’d like a summary of some of the research on the effect of long hours on people and the organizations that employ them, Sarah Green Carmichael had a nice article on the topic in Harvard Business Review last year.
In this post, I’d like to explain how I think about long hours when I think about them like a project manager. Put simply, I try to avoid having people who routinely work long hours on my teams. This is because experience has shown me that they are random risk generators. The thing about risk is that the “bad thing” doesn’t always happen. This is true in long hours: some people work long hours and all seems fine. They build successful careers and lead happy lives. But that doesn’t mean that the risks of less sanguine outcomes weren’t there, and that the long hours weren’t increasing the probability of those risks coming to fruition. As a project manager, one of the things I actively manage is risk, and I’ve concluded that people working really long hours (including myself!) is a risk it is better to just avoid.
What are some of the risks? I’m going to frame this within the discussion about postdoctoral fellows, but essentially everything I write here is true of other career paths as well. Just substitute “employee” for “postdoc” and “manager” for “principal investigator.”
Here is an incomplete list of the risks that I think accrue to the postdoc/employee if they are routinely working long hours:
- Physical injury: You’re more likely to make a mistake when you’re tired. In some areas of science, mistakes can lead to horrific lab accidents and even death. We’re also more likely to suffer repetitive strain injuries if we’re working long hours.
- Mental injury: We all think we’re immune to burnout, until we’re not. Exhaustion and overwork interferes with sleep patterns, and lack of sleep is associated with an increased risk of depression and anxiety.
- Less resilience: People who are “all in” on their career may have a harder time handling setbacks.
- Decreased creativity in your work: research supports the idea that we get our best, most creative ideas when we’re doing something unrelated to work (the classic “idea in the shower” scenario is supported by research). If you’re always working, you may miss out on these creative ideas… and you’ll never know it.
- Lower quality work: Our error rate goes up as we get more tired, and it is not realistic to think you’ll catch all those errors.
- Making poor decisions: Research has shown that our decision making abilities degrade as we get tired. But you probably don’t need the research to tell you that. You can probably think of examples from your own life. I know I can. Over the course of a career, poor decisions can lead to fewer opportunities.
And here is an incomplete list of the risks that I think accrue to principal investigator/manager from employees routinely working long hours:
- Lower quality work: See above. Mistakes directly effect how much work your team can get done, because you have to redo work- or do extra work- to make up for the mistake. I know of one case in which a single mistake by an overworked team member put a project several months behind schedule. I’m sure there are other dramatic examples out there, but I actually think the almost unnoticeable accumulation of mistakes does even more harm. It can be demoralizing for the team to constantly have to go back and fix things, and demoralized teams are less productive.
- Team members making bad decisions: See above. Bad decisions can lead to bad outcomes for your work, including in extreme cases, misconduct that can result in penalties that accrue to you as the manager.
- An employee who burns out or gets sick and unexpectedly quits or needs large amounts of time off: Most people eventually reach a breaking point and need time off, either because they are physically ill or because they are so burned out they no longer care. In extreme cases of the latter, they may even unexpectedly quit their jobs. Since this time off is unexpected, the chance that it will disrupt your project timelines is high.
- Increased risk of team conflict: Communication and interpersonal skills are also degraded by overwork. Team conflict can be very costly, both because work time is consumed dealing with arguments and their fallout and because some people will quit to get away from conflict- and you have no control over which person in the conflict decides to walk away. It could be your star performer.
As I said, these are incomplete lists. But I think they are illustrative of the risks of a culture in which long hours are the norm. When you routinely work long hours or expect your team to routinely work long hours, you’re essentially gambling that you’ll dodge these risks. How lucky do you think you’ll be over the course of your career? I think that eventually, the risk of long hours catches up with all of us, in one way or another.
So what can you do? If you are a postdoc, the first step is to understand why you’re working such long hours. Are you being less efficient with your time use than you could be? Are the expectations for your output unrealistic, and you’re running as hard as you can to meet them anyway? Have you just fallen into a bad habit? The best way I know to start to understand what’s going on is to gather some data. Track your time use for a week or two, and then analyze the results. Try to identify the actual root cause problems, and then work to solve them.
Do not rely on your gut instincts to answer these questions, particularly if you’ve been overworked for a long period of time. There was a time when I was righteously certain I was feeling stressed due to unrealistic expectations. I embarked on a time-tracking process to gather data to show to my manager to support that claim. However, when I looked at what my time-tracking actually told me, I realized I had a problem with how I was prioritizing my time, and after fixing that, I was able to meet the expectations and even exceed them.
You might do a time-tracking exercise and find that your time is too fragmented, or that what you are spending most of your time on does not match your priorities. You might find that you tend to procrastinate, or that you have perfectionist tendencies that do not allow you to finish something at “good enough.” There are solutions to all of these problems, but you won’t make any progress if you don’t know which problem you need to solve. Gather the data, and improve your productivity.
Maybe you have some solid base time management skills, but a new work environment means you need “level up” to handle new challenges. Learning some project management skills might be useful, particularly if you have a technician working on a project with you or if your’re balancing a couple of different projects at once. Or you might find out that you could be very efficient but aren’t because you are stuck in a “face time” culture in which your efficiency would not allow you to leave work earlier. There may be some “managing up” techniques you can use to set better boundaries and reclaim some of your time, or you may just need to start planning a move to a healthier environment.
If you are a PI and want to change a culture of long hours in your lab, you should also start by gathering data. Ask your team why they’re working the hours that they are. Take a hard look at whether there are any cases where you can buy your team some more efficiency (e.g., by purchasing pre-poured gels, or by budgeting for some more technician time). Maybe your projects aren’t well-defined and people need a little more structure. You might need to learn some project management skills, too- these skills are not usually taught during scientific training, but they can help you better understand how to help your team (and you!) be more productive without spending so many hours at work.
None of this is particularly easy, but it also isn’t unapproachably hard. Even small changes can sometimes lead to big improvements in quality of life. There are a lot of resources out there that you might find helpful. I list some on this page. If you like what I have to say on the subject, I also offer a time management seminar (you can buy a recording of a 1 hour online seminar for $20) and if you’re really looking for some individualized advice, I provide individual management coaching. I’m working out the details of what I think will be a “focused consulting” offering, in which you send me some information about your work and the challenges you face, we discuss that, I write up some recommendations, and then we discuss those. I’m still testing this idea out, and have space for a few more “beta testers” at $100 for the offering. (I’ll probably price it at $200 in the long term.) Email me (email@example.com) if you want to know more about that.
The most important step is to decide you don’t want to take the risk of long hours anymore. It may also be the hardest step to take, because so much of our culture, both within science and as a whole, lionizes people who work really long hours. If you can find the courage to challenge that culture, though, you might be surprised at how much more you enjoy your work- and your life.