OPINION21 February 2023

On kindness: Work-life balance in research

Opinion People Wellbeing

Louise McLaren argues the research industry must recognise that high workloads and long hours are unsustainable, and understand the importance of greater work-life balance.

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A friend asked recently how I managed to write articles given a busy day job and home life. She was hoping for some tips on how to carve out space to think an idea through, and pen something coherent, when there’s never quite enough time.

I admitted this was something I was also struggling with, and suggested we talk to spur each other on. Indeed, I have found it hard to put my next Research Live article somewhere on my to-do list. 

It was just recently, taking a walk to get some sunshine and catch my breath, that I realised that this is the point. This is the article I have been thinking about in the back of my mind.

The reason I’ve found it hard to get this done is because I have a family health situation which is depleting me somewhat. I’ve had to throw myself into co-curricular activities with a little less enthusiasm than normal.

It’s not affecting my ability to do my job, which I overwhelmingly enjoy, and which is a constructive outlet for me – with fascinating projects, lovely colleagues and clients I’m very fortunate to work with. But I have to prioritise a touch more in order to fulfil the core of my role well.

And I am being honest about this because I know I am far from alone in having to think in this way about what I can and should take on.

We will all have colleagues, clients and friends who are dealing with extraordinarily hard personal difficulties that we know about – a cancer diagnosis or a bereavement, for example.

But I know for certain that there are myriad other issues our colleagues in the industry will be facing. Let me list just a few: a wide range of mental and physical health issues which can be hidden; ill family members; financial stress; relationship difficulties; fertility problems, including challenges conceiving and miscarriage; life changes such as the menopause; and a neurodiversity diagnosis process. This is to say nothing of the heaviness of the world today, that can weigh upon us.

It troubles me deeply that the intensity of our industry today (and that of many others) relies not only upon many of us being willing and able to work long hours as a habit. It also relies upon us having the energy to do so because there is nothing in our personal lives that is draining our resources.

The very notion that – as I am sure I am not alone in having heard many times – people say they need a holiday to ‘rest’ or ‘recharge’ is emblematic of the problem. I know that it’s not uncommon for people to want to leave their roles but lack the time and headspace to follow this process through.

I’ve had countless conversations with friends across the industry in recent months that makes it clear to me that we have a significant wellbeing problem in our industry today, as research last year by Daughters of Sailors and Sinead Jefferies for MRS made clear.

There are no easy answers, especially in the current economic circumstances. But it does start, I think, with something very simple. For agencies, it starts with caring just a little more about their employees as complete human beings with hidden lives. And for employees, it starts with caring just a little less about our jobs.

Many of us have been schooled by modern culture to associate too much of our identities with work. This can be partly anxiety-driven – not unsurprising when we look at the economic context today and how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected us.

But if businesses keep treating their employees as resource to maximise the return on investment from, at some point they will break.  And they will break all the faster if they were navigating hidden personal difficulties.

If you see yourself in anything I outlined above, be kind to yourself. Consider letting your employer know if they were unaware – to the extent you are willing to share what you are going through. And if the toll of your job is unmanageable for you despite efforts to improve it, then just remember it’s a job, and see if you can find a better one.

Love your job, by all means. But be under no illusions that it loves you back.

Louise McLaren is managing director at Lovebrands 

1 Comment

one year ago

Thank you for such a relevant piece at a pressured time and a sensitive portrayal of 'you never know what someone is going through, be kind always'. This is an important reflection for all of us at the time of talent shortage. I can fully relate to a sense of depletion that impacts your ability to engage in activities after a recent bereavement. I was fortunate enough to be on the end of such kindness from a client and my leader. It makes a world of difference.

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