The ’work-work balance’ – an old issue that had no name?

Covid-19 has taught everybody much more about the dreaded ‘work-life’ balance, a term that has been around since the women’s liberation movement to describe the imbalance between the demands of work and those of home that affect women. Relegating much work to the home, covid-19 demonstrated just how difficult working from home actually is if one has inadequate housing/space for this and also has other family members at home making competing demands on one’s time and resources.

But amidst the now long-standing debates about the work-life (in)balance, another equally important issue, here termed ‘work-work balance’ has been obscured, namely the ways in which one’s working life can be made impossible by simultaneous conflicting irreconcilable work demands. We know about these issues mostly through statistics associated with burn-out and stress amongst workers, and through long-term sick leave statistics which in Sweden are notoriously high.

In our work in Nordwit we came across the phenomenon of work-work balance issues amongst academics working in an emerging field, Digital Humanities. They talked about four different scenarios which most academics will be familiar with. In many ways all academics have been subject to work intensification through technologization which, in many instances, has been used both as a ‘rationalizing’ instrument to reduce labour costs by depressing all manner of administrative work down to academics, and as a processulization instrument, demanding the constant online documentation of all academic labour-related processes. Doing all this often additional work mounts up but because the demands for this come from many different quarters, each of those quarters acts as if theirs was the only such demand. Nobody looks at the cumulative effect of this; fragmentation rules.

The four work-work (im)balance scenarios we were told about in our research involved a) people’s work being split – supposedly 50/50 – across two different jobs, often with different employers, but where the demands of each job far exceeded 50%; b) researchers being involved in multiple projects to small percentages of their work time, resulting in an impossibility of servicing all those projects; c) people with multiple functional roles that they found it impossible to do justice to; and d) academics having to do so many things within one job that they simply could not cope. The results: jobs or tasks were simply not done, projects failed, research was not undertaken or delegated/outsourced, people ended up on sick leave. This cannot be in the interested of either higher education institutions or research funders. The research showed that there is a clear need for higher education employers to create much more realistic workload models than they do now, and for research funders to re-think on what basis they award grants.

But that is not all… read more in G. Griffin (2022) ‘The ‘Work-Work Balance’ in Higher Education: Between Over-Work, Falling Short and the Pleasures of Multiplicity’, Studies in Higher Education (published online 3 Jan 2022)

Gabriele Griffin

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