Confronting the Culture of Overwork: Less is More by Brittany Uhlorn

We’ve created a culture of overwork in academia.

It’s expected that techs, professors and graduate students eat, sleep and breathe their work. Slept more than four hours last night? You could have been replying to emails. Took an hour lunch break? Chug down an energy drink while you analyze data and eat a bag of chips on the way to class instead. Only worked 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. today? Don’t expect to get tenure any time soon. This dangerous and pervasive narrative, fuelled by a combination of impostor syndrome and the “publish or perish” mentality, causes many academics to feel compelled to spend every waking hour reading the literature, refining lectures and perfecting their ideas so that they can keep their careers afloat.

These feelings are completely valid and relatable, given the current measure of success on metrics like publications and grants. With the highly competitive funding climate and the great likelihood of getting a paper rejected, even after years of hard work, it’s easy to feel the need to work overtime to make it in this industry. In academia, being good or even great doesn’t cut it – you’ve got to be flawless. The drive for perfection frequently causes academics, especially PIs, to devote all their time and attention to their work.

Intense dedication can easily turn into a moral issue. Some believe the devotion of one’s time and full attention to their work equates to passion and ability. But this can be a huge barrier to those who need or desire to devote their spare time elsewhere, such as to a family, self-care or personal hobby. In the current metrics-orientated academia, if you make time to read a book for pleasure, attend your child’s school program, publicly advocate for a cause or lounge by the pool on the weekends, it’s highly likely you won’t be as traditionally “successful” as your single, childless coworker who eats, sleeps and breathes their work. This leads to a range of diversity and inclusion issues that discriminate against those unwilling or unable to put in the same number of hours, and thus, we often only see one type of person ruling academic.

This type of unrelenting devotion not only takes one’s time from activities that can nourish the soul and support relationships – it can quickly become an unhealthy obsession. And unfortunately, this obsession has become normalized.

It is frequently expected that faculty bring their work home with them to achieve a 60-hour or more work week. Coffee, tea and energy drinks are essential to keeping their eyes open and fingers rapidly tapping on the keyboard. It’s unheard of for a newly hired faculty member to have any time for themselves, let alone their families, if they want to get tenure. In this world, the more similar an academic is to a grant-writing, manuscript-pumping robot, the better.

But the problem doesn’t stop there – it trickles down through the academy. A tech might be expected to become a lab machine, pumping out data faster than their heart can beat. These highly productive machines are desperately needed to supply preliminary data for grants or to perfect the same Western Blot, just to get the perfect, “representative” figure for a manuscript. The pressures of overwork and needing to attain perfection often cause high-achieving people to do “bad science”, massaging data or entirely making up results, just to keep playing the academic game. If postdocs want to land a tenure-track position one day, it’s nearly essential that they adopt the same 60-hour work week as their mentors, and with far more post-docs than faculty positions available, the need to become a workhorse is even more necessary. And let’s not forget about the students. Upon entering graduate school, they are immediately immersed in a culture of overworked perfectionists. Students quickly learn that it’s frowned upon to show up later than 8 a.m. or go home before 6 p.m. in most labs. Many talented individuals find themselves breaking down mentally and potentially dropping out of graduate school because the pressure to achieve is just too intense.

I’m guilty of perpetuating this culture

I’m a perfectionist by nature, though I’ve done a lot of work in therapy over the last two years to denounce my unhealthy urges for excellence.

When I was a graduate student, there were times when I personally experienced the self-imposed shame and guilt associated with working less than a 10-hour day. Even though my PI never once demanded this of me, being immersed in a culture of overwork and feeling the burning desire to be the perfect graduate student made me feel as if I needed to prioritize my work over myself and my now-husband. These feelings were perpetuated by being a woman in STEM. Those of the same gender identity as myself are often told we aren’t smart or rational enough to belong in science, let along academia. Because of this, we feel like we need to go above and beyond what is expected from a man to feel worthy of “success” in this profession. I recognize it’s even more difficult for those from other minority groups, further perpetuating the need for those individuals to work harder just to “prove” themselves in the academy.

I eventually succumbed to the perceived pressure, at times showing up to the lab at 3 a.m. and not leaving until after dinnertime to prove my dedication. I shamed myself for failed experiments – results I could not control, but somehow, I believed were a reflection of my character.

Less than perfect results further pushed me to work harder and harder in the lab to prove I was competent. I told myself I was fine and that these feelings and behaviors were normal. I especially didn’t want to show that I was on the edge of a breakdown because that would only fuel the “weak, emotional woman” stereotype I was so desperate to avoid.

My peers and many faculty members expressed similar sentiments. They only slept a few hours each night because their jobs are just that demanding, so I wasn’t really different, which further fueled the unhealthy fire within me. And it’s these same students and faculty members who also saw their overworked nature as a badge of honor. They almost bragged about how little they’ve slept last night, and it was a contest to see who put in the most hours at the bench or typing away on the computer over the weekend – a contest they wanted to win. I got sucked into this mindset, too, routinely posting pictures on social media of myself without makeup, donning bruise-like black circles under my eyes as I showed up to lab at the crack of dawn.

And why did I do this? To prove to everyone else that I was a model graduate student and make others feel bad for still being in bed, of course.

Consequences of the culture

While these behaviors and feelings have become normalized, they are often the same behaviors that can lead to poor mental and physical health. Sleep and meals become unnecessary, as do exercise and time outdoors. Family and friends become a distraction as opposed to a fulfilling part of one’s life. To be high achievers in academia, we’re almost asking ourselves to let go of the parts of ourselves that actually make us human.

More worrisome are the mental health problems that can develop as a result of this culture of overwork. Impostor syndrome and perfectionism are frequently associated with debilitating anxiety and depression. The constant feeling of never being “good enough” can make a person feel as if they are in a hole they just can’t get out of. And these feelings and mental health troubles are only exacerbated by discrimination against marginalized communities who don’t have the same privileges as those leading the academy.

For me, the pressures of this unhealthy culture fueled my anxiety and perfectionism, ultimately causing me to develop an eating disorder to cope with my emotions and stress. By controlling my body through food and exercise, I was able to ignore what was truly bothering me. I was numb from the hurt that this culture of overwork had caused me. My eating disorder gave me a false sense of relief to be able to continue to push myself harder and harder in the lab, eventually working to the point of blacking out most days.

And I know I’m not alone. While some may develop eating disorders like myself, many others turn to alcohol and drugs to soothe their nerves or more troubling mental health problems that arise because of the academic culture. Regardless of the way these problems manifest, if at all recognizable, they can – and will – take an emotional, mental and physical toll on anyone who attempts to thrive in academia.

When do we say enough is enough?

We must work towards change together

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can work together to change the destructive culture we’ve inadvertently perpetuated to save not only ourselves, but future generations of academics. Hours spent at work should not – rather, do not – equal passion, success or dedication. We must reward balance and stop normalizing this one-sided, unhealthy devotion.

For those on the inside, you can start by setting an example to bring about change. “Good” should be good enough. By eliminating an expectation for perfection, all parties involved can find more balance in their work.

Those who have completed their essential tasks for the day shouldn’t feel guilty for leaving at 5 p.m. We need to recognize there is always more that could be done, and that it is okay – even essential – to prioritize our mental and physical health. We will find that by stepping away from our work every night and on the weekends, we come back rejuvenated and more productive.

Post-docs need not to feel as if their careers are dependent on their productivity. Graduate students need to be assured that their degrees can be accomplished in roughly five years without being compelled to work more nights and weekends. If they put in the effort and show progress in becoming independent innovators, they should be rewarded. These changes need to come from the top down – senior academics must enable their trainees and students to find balance in their lives without fear of stunting their careers or jeopardizing a healthy, essential work/life balance.

For those like myself who are removed from traditional academic roles, we can use our experiences to inspire and support others. Though I have walked through a dark season of my life fueled by the culture of overwork, I am only one voice representing one identity – and that identity comes with a great deal of privilege. I hope those of other of races, cultures, gender identities and sexual orientations continue to speak up and share their unique stories to bring about change.

I recognize this is all much easier said than done, especially coming from someone no longer working at the lab bench or writing manuscripts and grants. The current academic climate won’t change overnight. It will take a long time before all faculty, staff and students accept that being “good enough” is the key to finding a balance in their lives that will support them personally and professionally. And it might be even harder to gain the institutional support to be able to relax expectations.

But by letting go of our need for perfection, by spending more time on ourselves and our families, we can live happier, healthier lives. We’ll be able to enjoy more time outdoors, read a book for fun or take a spontaneous, unplugged weekend trip every now and then – all without guilt. And when we come back to work, hopefully we’ll feel rejuvenated because we haven’t worked ourselves to the point of exhaustion. I’d bet money we’ll end up being more successful in our careers if we are able to work less and spend more time doing things that nourish our minds, bodies and souls.

This transition will not be easy, but we must start somewhere.

I’m up to the challenge. Are you?

Brittany Uhlorn

Brittany Uhlorn is the Coordinator of Marketing and Communications at the BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona. She obtained her Ph.D. in cancer biology from the University of Arizona in 2020; Her dissertation work focused on the interplay between human papillomavirus and the innate immune system. After battling with her mental health during graduate school, she became passionate about using her experiences and voice to help others support their wellbeing. Brittany leads the Stronger Together Series for PhD Balance and is a certified yoga teacher. Aside from practicing yoga, she enjoys cooking, hiking with her husband, and snuggling her kitty.