Tips for striving toward work-life balance

Striving for Work-life Balance

Being an early career ecologist is tough. Launching an ecology career requires a lot of hard work and sacrifice as you seek to set a research agenda, build collaborations, write grants, and publish, publish, publish. This is all the more challenging if you want to have a life outside of your career. I went to graduate school at the University of Florida and living in the South emphasized the importance of three things: family, faith, and football. Now in a more general sense we can think of these as relationships, spirituality, and hobbies and they pretty well sum up the important things in our lives, hopefully with some food and sleep thrown in. But note that work does not make this list. We are left with the need to figure out how to balance these things with our work, and if you’re like me you often may feel like the scales threaten to strongly tip toward career.


Created by T. Fullman

The challenge: avoiding having your work dominate the balance of your life.

I am not going to pretend to have all the answers here. I struggle to keep my work and life in balance, just like you. However, I want to raise awareness of the importance of this issue and to suggest a few tips for regaining some balance between life and career. I also want to share some of my experiences pursuing work-life balance in a non-academic career.


Why work-life balance?

Research is increasingly showing that maintaining work-life balance is important. This is not a new concept, in fact studies conducted during World War I on British munitions factory workers found that while output initially increased with the number of hours worked, this was dramatically reduced after about 49 hours per week. The implication is that more time worked does not necessarily equate to more productivity. This has been seen in other fields as well (for an interesting example in video game design, with links to numerous other fields, see here).


Pencavel 2015 Econ J 125:2052-2076

Munition worker productivity tapers off after about 49 hours per week (Fig. 1 in Pencavel, John. “The productivity of working hours.” The Economic Journal 125 (589) 2015: 2052-2076.)

In addition to not necessarily improving output, working long hours can have serious physical consequences. A meta-analysis published in The Lancet looked across hundreds of thousands of patients and found that working 55 hours or more a week was associated with increased risks of coronary heart disease and stroke. At some point, we have to ask ourselves how much our health is worth.


Tips for improving work-life balance

So what do we do? There are no doubt many things that can be done to improve work-life balance. Here are a few suggestions I have tried to incorporate in my life:

  • Treat your work as a 9-5 (or 8-6) job

This was advice I got from an older grad student when I started my Master’s degree and it is something I have tried to follow throughout graduate school and into my current job. Sometimes you will go through crunch periods where you have to work more, but the goal is to make those the exception rather than the rule. Really, the point here is much more the mindset than the specific hours you choose to work. The question is: when I go home does my work stop? You want to work hard but then leave your work when you go home. With the prevalence of technology making it ever easier to check email or get data delivered to your phone, the temptations increase for us to be in a work mindset all the time. There are some conveniences of this (recently I’ve been trying to get my R code to text me when it finishes running or has an error), but we need to be careful that these conveniences do not keep us from enjoying the other aspects of our life. Ultimately, this goes back to the points above – working longer hours doesn’t necessarily mean you are being more productive, and never taking a break ensures you won’t be.

  • Stop comparing yourself to others

If there was a single point that I think is most important to promoting work-life balance it is this: stop comparing yourself to others. Imposter syndrome is a very real phenomenon and is certainly a threat for us as ecologists. Often, I feel like I have to work harder and stay at work longer because it seems like everyone else is working harder than I am. Meghan Duffy wrote a great blog post about this a few years ago and how it leads to persistent myths like the need to work 80 hours a week to succeed in academia. Feeling these pressures also bleeds into other areas of my life. When I do take a bit of time for myself, I wind up feeling guilty that I’m not doing as much as others. This means my personal time isn’t as relaxing as it should be.

The problem is, we live in a relative culture. Standardized tests and grades on curves teach us that our absolute score isn’t nearly as important as how we rank compared to everyone else. This translates into how we view other areas of our life, so that if you’re not working more hours than everyone else you’re not doing a “good job”. This is incredibly deceptive. Everyone else’s lives look great when we only see their highlight reels, but we cannot tell how much time our colleagues spent in the lab running analyses versus how much was browsing Facebook (or for me, reading PhD Comics).

One major thing we can do to counter the lie of believing we’re not good enough because we don’t work hard enough is to have the courage to be honest about the fact that we don’t always work. I can’t count the number of times in grad school on a Monday morning when my colleagues and my conversation would go something like this: “How was your weekend?” “Great, I read three papers and got a bunch of analyses done.” It was almost taken as a badge of honor that we worked a lot over the weekend. Rarely did someone want to admit, “Oh, I went to the beach, got together with friends, and slept in a bit.” But if we start to be honest about the times that we take breaks, it may help others to believe it’s okay for them to do other things outside of work too. By all means we should be working hard and encouraging others to do so, but we need to change the unspoken idea that working hard means working all the time and to instead encourage people that it is good, and even important to their effectiveness, to rest and relax.

  • Get outside…and not for work

Many of us got into the field of ecology because we were fascinated with the natural world. Why is it, then, that we find ourselves spending so much time in front of a computer, rather than out experiencing that which we love? Even if we do have the opportunity to spend time outside for work, are we taking any time to sit back and enjoy it? I was blessed to get to do a lot of fieldwork in southern Africa during my graduate work. Sometimes, however, I would find that even though I’d spent all day out in beautiful places, most of my attention had been on my GPS unit, my tape measure, and my datasheet. I had to remind myself to pause sometimes and look around and to just watch the animals and ecosystems around me – not to assess their data value, but their beauty. In the most recent issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Jane Lubchenco wrote an editorial about engaging our society with science. The final sentence of her piece provided an important reminder: “And as we tackle these emerging challenges, don’t forget to carve out time to connect with nature and people so as to recharge our batteries and remind us of what’s important.” I think she is right on. Far from indulgence, taking the time for such things will reinforce our ability to be effective scientists. We need to work hard and play hard.


Pursuing work-life balance in a non-academic position

As I wrap up, I want to briefly speak to how I have found working in a non-academic career to be helpful to my work-life balance. When I started grad school I wasn’t looking to go into the non-profit sector. After stumbling into a wildlife ecologist position at The Wilderness Society, however, I have found it to provide great opportunities for me to advance my ecology career while also maintaining balance with my personal life. One beneficial aspect of this has been with job flexibility. In general, I am given a fair amount of discretion about when and how I work. It turns out, perceptions of job flexibility can have a positive impact on work life balance and the time one devotes to work. I have found this to be the case in my position and appreciate the flexibility to be able to work from home if a child is sick or to come into work late and stay late if my wife has a doctor’s appointment and needs me to watch the kids. The trick is to ensure that this flexibility doesn’t lead you to always bring your work home. The Wilderness Society also does a great job of encouraging its employees to get outside, aligning with my final point above. We devote large amounts of energy to protecting public lands for everyone in the US to enjoy and our leaders want to make sure we go out and enjoy them too. I don’t think working in a non-profit is for everyone, and it would be a whole new blog post to really discuss the pros and cons of working for a non-governmental organization, but for me it has been a great way, early in my ecology career, to establish myself as a scientist while also making space for the other important aspects of my life.

In summary, work-life balance really is important to your productivity as an ecologist and to your health, so make it a priority. As part of this, try to treat your work like a 9-5 job so that when you go home your work doesn’t come with you. As you do this, be honest about it, letting your colleagues know that you take breaks and have other priorities and that it helps you to be more productive when you are in the office. Set an example to encourage them to stop comparing themselves to others. And be sure that you balance your working hard with playing hard, getting out to enjoy the incredible natural world that we get to study as ecologists. You may just find that doing all these things makes you more productive too.



Tim Fullman is a Senior Ecologist with The Wilderness Society based in Anchorage, Alaska. He serves the Early Career Ecologists Section of the ESA as the Non-academic Career Pathways Officer where he strives to spread the word about alternative career options for ecologists and to ensure that the Section remains relevant to and supports early career ecologists in non-academic roles. This blog was adapted from an Ignite talk he gave in the Concerns and Challenges in Personal and Professional Development for Early Career Ecologists session at the 2016 ESA meeting in Ft. Lauderdale.