Structural unpaid overtime as ‘part of the job’ – don’t buy it!

by Yvonne La Grouw | Reading Time: 3-4 Minutes /

Structural unpaid overtime and wellbeing

On the Alarm Day on the sixth of April 2021, Dutch universities protested against structural unpaid overtime. The increasing scarcity in higher education and research had led to extreme work pressure and strongly influences academics’ wellbeing. In fact, the problematic wellbeing of academics is a recurring and almost normalized topic, as if it is just a part of the job that we need to accept. 

Structural unpaid overtime is a persisting problem in academia, in the first place due to increasing student numbers and decreasing funding. Universities are expected to provide top-level research and education and therefore, academics need to work harder for less. This is an essential problem that needs to be fixed in political decision-making arenas.

Logo of the Alarm Day 2021

The romantic myth of overtime and overachievement 

What can we as young scholars do, in daily working life, if we want to contribute to a system-change? I believe we need to change the romantic ‘overachieving’ academic work culture.

During the last four years, I observed a complex organizational culture of on the one hand being bothered by extreme working hours and lurking burnouts, and on the other romanticizing and ironically joking about it. The latter seems to be a coping mechanism to deal with the former. Check for example social media accounts for sharing experiences with the burden of being an academic, for example Dr. Exhausted and Panicking Postdoc. I haven’t found accounts for Burdened Bankers or Coping Consultants.

Although humor is the best de-stressor and acknowledgement of your struggles are comforting and therefore helpful, this type of discourse is risky as well. It risks normalizing and sometimes even romanticizing the problems of the job. It frames unpaid overtime as something we have to live through, actually, something we have to do.

Implicitly, the discourse tells us that if we do not work overtime until we are exhausted or panicking, we lack ambition, perseverance, relevance, resilience, and can therefore no be successful. The concept of ‘humble bragging’ may also apply here: some scholars are happy to share that their life exists of 24/7 work, work, work, and therewith implicitly tell us how their working hours reflect their success. It is true that some scholars happily practice the 24/7 workweek, but for a healthy working environment, this should not be the norm. It seems fairer and healthier to do the work you are actually paid for (your fte).

Between optimism and anxiety

Elsewhere, I explained how senior scholars put junior scholars under pressure through ‘cruel optimism’ (Berlant, 2008) through motivating them to optimistically pursue top publications, while it might run against their own wellbeing and future career perspectives (La Grouw, 2019). The romantic myth of overtime appears a similar cruel optimistic phenomenon. 

Ironic jokes and humble bragging create a double feeling of optimism and anxiety. Optimism will motive you to persevere in doing unpaid overtime (I can do this and will generate success and acknowledgement!), and anxiety will create stressed feelings that you need to do more (unpaid) overtime to be successful (it is never enough, I am always too slow!), just as your colleagues. A persistent cruel optimistic stance towards overtime is problematic, because it blurs the boundaries of your requirements and tasks, contributes to feelings of losing grip on the job and therefore feeds feelings of being overwhelmed and unqualified.

How can we break with this social norm of (showing off with) overtime? 

Foucault would argue that resistance is key. The Alarm Day is, therefore, a great initiative, as it focuses on reducing the tasks per academic, which will help in reducing work pressure. Individual scholars can resist by breaking with the romantic culture of overworked academics. We need to be brave and set boundaries and stop participating in the challenge of ‘who used the least holiday hours this year?’. 

When the workload is too much, discuss what you can do less. If you are not allowed to do less, delivery lower quality, and communicate this to your supervisor as a consequence of the high workload. I know this is tough, as our work is understood as a representation of the self, and again creates fear of not being successful enough for academia. Still, it is important to take a step back from this idea of the perfect self and a step forward to a healthier and happier work environment. Especially for PhDs, I believe a healthier, happier and relaxed you will lead to more creative and innovative work.

A crucial element of these acts of resistance is supervisors and colleagues respecting and accepting these boundaries. Acts of resistance of young, female, people of color and/or LGBTQI employees might be less likely respected than that of their older, male, white, straight and/or cis-gendered colleagues. Therefore, it is highly important to be attentive to acts of resistance of our colleagues and support them.

Unpaid overtime is, of course, okay as a necessary exception now and then (although paid overtime would be a refreshing alternative). Unpaid overtime is not an exhausting performance that deserves cheering, so don’t buy it!


Yvonne La Grouw is a PhD Candidate at the department of Political Science and Public Administration. She uses a critical, actor-level lens to study decision-making processes in healthcare and social policy settings, feminist perspectives and academic cultures.

References

Berlant, L. (2008). Cruel Optimism: On Marx, Loss and the Senses. New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics, 63: 33-51. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543067001043

La Grouw, Y. (2019). Seniors, vermijd wreed optimisme en gebruik je positie. Beleid en Maatschappij, 46(1), 164-169. https://doi.org/10.5553/BenM/138900692019046001012

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