Researchers’ wellbeing is going to be at the core of the Think Ahead programme of activities in June, with Researcher wellbeing week (18th– 22nd June) and Think Further weekly coaching emails & webpages. Focusing on wellbeing matters, because as researchers and academics, we inhabit a hypercompetitive environment. Many of us are at risk of letting go of our wellbeing. Why? Well, in parts because we are interested and even passionate about our topic, and because we love to learn, progress, understand and discover new things. Sadly, we have anchored beliefs that, to thrive in academia, we have to remain so focused and dedicated that we have no time for anything else. There is never an endpoint in our academic learning; putting boundaries and giving ourselves permission to have space for other elements in our life can be quite complicated. Guilt is often part of the picture when we make decisions that sabotage our “wellbeing time”. Recent studies on the wellbeing of academics and researchers make for dire read.
At the end of each day and at the end of each week, our to do list remains so long that we have the feeling of having been very unproductive, whilst the reality may be quite different. Maybe our to do list was just much too long and unrealistic (considering our own personal contexts). So, at the end of the day, we end up working late or taking our unfinished work home, and at the end of the week, we end up eating a bite of our weekend for the things we did not quite finish during the week. Then, the endless circle of unachievable tasks, frustration and guild zooms back into action. Whilst this is not something that is specific to academia, as professionals from many other sectors will talk about overwork and long hours, there is a particular flavour of this type of work pattern within academia.
For PhD students, the looming deadline of thesis submission, and for Postdocs, the frustration of short term contractual work, create the crescendo of working lives. We rarely challenge the rhythm inflicted by funders’ expectations and we all fall short of overpromising in order to access funding. Overcoming such patterns of excess is a collective responsibility but we all know that institutional/ cultural change is an incredibly slow process.
We can often be the willing victims of our work patterns. I am not denying the pilling academic pressures that we are so fully aware of. However, considering our wellbeing and doing something about it, is a choice, a pro-active choice. Not an easy one, let’s face it, but choice it is. Your wellbeing needs you!
It will take reflection, planning and action. It is very likely that no one else but yourself will consider it- if not you then who else? So, my questions to you:
What are you going to do about your wellbeing today, tomorrow, this week, the next, this month, this year and so on?
Our wellbeing is not something we can just figure out and get sorted in one go, it is a lifetime project that needs reviewing, redrafting, and even reimagining. It changes through our different life cycle. Our wellbeing project is our own, no one else and it will look very different for each of us. The only commonality between all of our wellbeing projects is that we should never scrap them. Whatever the form, colour and texture of your wellbeing project, own it, shape it and nurture it.
What kinds of ingredients may you want to use in your wellbeing project:
1/ Nurture your relationships
Research has identified that one of the key elements to healthy and happy lives lies in the nurturing of our relationships. In his TEDx talk, Robert Waldinger dares to say “loneliness kills”. Our social interactions, the quality of our close relationships and the satisfaction we have from our interactions can buffer us from the turmoil of our personal and working lives. Intense research periods can lead us to withdraw from our social network and not spend and give much time to those that matter in our lives. Nurturing these relationships is what will help us sustain the academic storm.
- Do you have a best buddy at work, someone who will take the time to grab a coffee with you and talk through things when you need it? If not, consider developing work relationships with positive colleagues who can energise you.
- Make a phone call today to someone in your life that you have been ignoring (because of too much work…) and schedule some time to spend together.
As researchers so focused on using our minds in our work, we forget that we are not just thinkers, but bodies too. Nurturing our bodies through physical activities is one pillar in our wellbeing project. Whatever rocks your boat (walking, dancing, gardening, cycling etc.), just get off your chair and get some fresh air!
- Join the ResearcherWell walks or the 2018 Bigwalk!
3/ Attitude for gratitude
Although some people may find this a bit of a “happy-clappy” sort of thing to mention, but the idea of mindfulness is an ancient practice. Attitude for gratitude is about a conscious choice to become aware of the small beauties in everyday things or of the tiniest things others do for us. It is about being in the moment and being thankful. It is about noticing what is around us and the emotions these bring. Becoming aware of the environment that brings us to our best self. We often forget to thank others for their help, input, suggestions, insights or feedback.
Who is the one person who really needs your thanks? Then what are you waiting for?
What is the one thing that has already made your day since you got up this morning?
4/ Know your own clock
There are two elements to this:
- First, raise your awareness of when you are at your best to do the tasks that matter. Knowing when we function well is key in being productive and limiting the time we spend on doing tasks.
- Second, quantify the reality of time. If you have a daily schedule of 10 things to do but have no clue on how much time they all take, then why scheduling 10 things when you perfectly know you won’t achieve them. A reality check of the real amount of time it takes you do to do things is important. This will allow you to better schedule you days and weeks in the real world, not an imaginary and unrealistic world of mega/ superproductivity.
How long does it really take YOU to do things?
If you need to write an abstract for a conference, do you schedule one hour, one day or do you chip away at it in small bites over a week. Whatever time it takes your supervisor/ line manager/ peers is irrelevant, what matters is that you know your own reality. So, you may want to start a tasks diary over several months, noting down how you really spend your time on things and how long it takes you to do things. This could help you start scheduling your work and other parts of your life with realism instead of fanciful goals.
5/ Foster your creativity
Our creativity is fostered by continuously learning new things (or rediscovering old hobbies) that provide us with joy and fun. If you have let go of some of things you enjoy doing (e.g. playing an instrument, going to the cinema, doing crafty/ creative activities), give yourself permission to bring these back into your life. Keep learning and doing new things that are joyous, bring feelings of achievements and connection.
What are you doing today that will bring joy to the day?
6/ Set the fence
Establishing control over how we want to live our lives makes an immense difference towards our wellbeing. Nurturing our wellbeing does not necessarily means working less, it means balancing the different elements of our lives in ways that work for us. What this absolutely means is having the autonomy to set our own boundaries. For some researchers, this will mean deciding that although they are happy to work in the evening during the week, they are choosing to dedicate their weekend to their personal lives. Others will decide that (no matter what) since writing is critical for academic success, they will dedicate the first hour of each day to any writing project they have on the go. For you, it may be that you are not opening you email inbox until lunchtime, so that your mornings are focused on doing tasks. Each of us have some level of autonomy in choosing the types of boundaries we need to put in place that can help our wellbeing:
What is the one thing that you can start doing, stop doing, or do differently that will set boundaries contributing to your wellbeing?
So today start something new towards your wellbeing project!