Academia can be a minefield when it comes to your wellbeing. Just when you think you have everything going steady – your work, free time and mental health in perfect equilibrium – bang! An unexpected explosion. A snake in the grass. A fly in the ointment. Or any other insidious metaphor of your choice.
We’ve covered academic threats to wellbeing in a previous post, but this week we’re going to take a close look at how you can nourish your wellbeing, and protect it from those ever-encroaching threats.
Your wellbeing is one of your most precious resources as a hard-working academic. As Martine Ellis, writer, coach and educator on wellbeing-driven productivity puts it:
‘… in order to get stuff done, to be productive, you need to be well. To do well, you need to be well, whether that’s physically or mentally well. In education and academia, you see people just absolutely working till they fall over. I think burnout is the next step to that.’
Our objective is to stop you from getting anywhere close to that point of burnout.
So, what can you do to safeguard your mental, emotional and physical health?
Perfect the Use of ‘No’
We’ve put this one front and centre. Your ability to say ‘no’ is a tool far more powerful than you might realise. In the high pressure of academia, you might feel that you need to say ‘yes’ to everything – that in fact it’s the only way to make progress. After all, saying ‘no’ to a senior academic is unlikely to help your career forward, right?
Well, the answer is a little more complicated than that. Whilst it is important to keep an eye on advancing your career, it’s just as crucial to preserve your dignity, integrity and sense of self.
Martine talked us through the familiar example of replying to requests and emails immediately – whether they come during office hours or not:
‘That’s where that mindset shift is really important, because actually when you respond to that email, that request, two things are happening.
Firstly, you’re not giving your best response because you’re doing it in a really rushed, hurried way, which does indicate how much thought you’ve put into it, doesn’t it? Very little. You’ve just gone straight back to them. That’s the first thing that’s happening. The person is not getting a good quality response from you.
And then the second thing that’s happening is you are training those people around you that if they email you out of hours, they’re going to get pretty much an immediate response.
And if you keep doing that, it’s going to become an expectation. And actually that’s on you.’
Too many yesses can put you into the dangerous territory of overstretching and even exhaustion. So, wield that ‘no’ with wisdom and strategy.
Structure Your Working Days
Working regular hours matters more than you might think. Our minds and bodies – our daily rhythms as individuals – benefit deeply from the calm and comfort of knowing what’s coming next. Imagine a working week where every day is drastically different – where you couldn’t predict how long you might be working at any given moment. The inability to foresee, much less control, these fluctuations in productivity would likely have a knock-on effect on your periods of rest, putting intense pressure on your whole system and, naturally, bringing down the quality of your work.
How can you counter this possibility?
The answer lies in being generous to yourself, and combatting unexpected spikes of intensity in your working hours with equal doses of rest and recovery. Martine suggests actively tracking these spikes and balancing them out with conscious periods of rest.
‘I try very hard to work relatively regular hours, and if I’ve done a slightly long day, I’ll have a shorter day the following day to balance things out because I know I have to have that rest.
We need to stop thinking about work and rest being opposites. They’re not. They’re part of the same process and in order to do work well, you have to do rest well.’
Maintaining that inner wellbeing through a careful balance of work and rest will allow you to face each day, and indeed week, with confidence and consistency.
Work with Intent
One of the big pitfalls of working in academia or research is the possibility of overworking yourself. But this process does not only take place over the span of a whole working week. It can even happen within the individual hours of a day. You push and push at a particular task, refusing to take yourself away from your lab-work, your books, or your computer, until your progress grinds to a slow halt.
Sometimes that big push can be worth it, and lead to great rewards, but at other times it pays to be mindful of your level of concentration. Building in a micro-structure to your working hours can renew your focus throughout the day, keeping your wellbeing strong. Martine recommends the famous Pomodoro technique:
‘I use an online timer called Pomo Focus. It’s a free timer, and I hit the timer and I work for 25 minutes, absolutely focused. I move my phone into another room. I block everything, I put my headphones on and I work for a 25 minute sprint, and then the timer goes off and I take a five minute break, and then I do that four times.
And then I take a longer break. So it’s still boundaries if you think about it. It’s boundaries in the actual work practice that you do. But by working in sprints, I spend less time doing the work. It’s more focused, it’s higher quality, and then I’m building in breaks.’
Building in breaks and boundaries works not only with people, but also with work itself, allowing you to safeguard your wellbeing at multiple levels.
Wellbeing truly matters in academia. It shouldn’t be an afterthought, but instead something we nurture every day to keep ourselves and our endeavours moving along with pace, health and consistency. Let us know what techniques you employ to nourish your academic wellbeing, and for more on wellbeing from the ever-thoughtful Martine, listen to our candid interview with her in full 🎧
Keep striving, researchers! ✨