Beware – the cult of presenteeism!

It’s 7pm and I’m in the office for PhD students, exhausted after a long day of writing reports, experiments over-running and a fresh truckload of email admin. Tomorrow will be more of the same so I decide to call it a day. Gathering my belongings, I slink to the door, avoiding the gaze of the other students still working away. I ask myself “When did it become normal to feel guilty at leaving the office so late?!”

Beware – the dangers of presenteeism!” Sadly no one told me this during my PhD introduction week – the compulsion to stay at work longer than necessary, even when there are no urgent tasks to be done. I started my research with all the right intentions to achieve that coveted work-life balance: I’d work as hard as I could during the week, but would keep aside time for the creative, nourishing activities that I knew kept me happy and refreshed. Things like visiting my family, going to church, hiking in the countryside… after all, I knew from my undergraduate degree that working 24/7 only leads to burn out and an inability to think properly. But the devious thing about doing a research project is that (unless you are incredibly lucky and get brilliant results straight away) it is too easy for this belief to take root: If I work more hours, I will get more results. If I am not getting enough results, it means I am not working hard enough.

Despite trying a number of different approaches during my first year, my experiments didn’t yield any significant results. So I began staying later into the evenings. Then working the odd weekend. Soon I was working every weekend. And I usually wasn’t alone. I found myself comparing my schedule with those of my colleagues, disregarding the fact that our projects were all completely different. “Does he never go home? He works so late, that must be why he is progressing much more than me…” Comparing work patterns in this way can enforce a culture where one feels compelled to stay late, even if you cannot do any more useful work. But I felt that leaving before 6pm – let alone 5pm – would give the wrong impression: that I was a lazy student who wasn’t dedicated to their project. Even if I did find time for an enjoyable activity, I would usually be so wracked with guilt for not working that the experience was spoilt.

It didn’t seem to be a problem specific to my lab, as I found when I did a research placement at a lab in Norwich. I will never forget going in to work one Saturday and sharing a workspace with a lady plating up hundreds of agar plates, her husband and young daughter patiently sitting and waiting for her to finish.

It was only when I left the lab completely that I realised that I had fallen into this trap. Between March – June 2019, I was fortunate enough to do an internship at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology based in Westminster, London. Desperately keen to succeed in my role and obtain a good reference, I decided to stay in the office until 6.30 – 7pm each day, to get as much work done as possible. But it quickly became clear that this was downright odd and I would end up alone, with all my colleagues long departed. It was so refreshing to work in an environment where people really did clock off at five, come in late or work flexibly between the home and office. If I did spot someone working late, it was usually because they were having the next day off and wanted to clear out their in-tray first. Following my colleagues’ lead, I suddenly felt time-rich again: I would arrive home in the light and have time to catch up with my family in the evenings or attend an exhibition, talk or event.

It has made me realise that the research lab has a unique, singular culture. Outside of this, there is an attitude that if you can’t get all your work done in the hours you are paid for, then perhaps you aren’t in the right role. Staying late at work isn’t a sign of dedication, but one that could even suggest poor time management.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not criticising working extra hours to push through a significant piece of work or follow up a breakthrough result. If you are on a roll, then ride the wave for as long as you can. But at other times, don’t hang around in the lab as though hoping data will fall from the sky. Aim to work smarter, not harder. A PhD may be a marathon undertaking, but it can be more effective to approach it as a series of sprints. The key is to build in real rest periods (both mentally and physically) that allow you to work full throttle when you return to the lab.

So here are my final words of advice. Even if your colleagues subscribe to the cult of presenteeism, don’t feel you have to join in. Have the confidence to set your own schedule and leave the office on time: in the long run, you will be more refreshed, think more clearly and get more done over the long run. A PhD is a long haul, so give yourself the best chance!

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