Reclaiming Life From Work

When he was a postdoc, developmental biologist Thomas Lecuit spent many evenings and weekends hard at work on his research, in the lab and at home. But then he had children. He was determined to be a committed father as well as a successful researcher, so he sought a position that would allow him to tend to both his new family and his work responsibilities.

Lecuit chose to work in a highly regarded yet easy-going institute with a nice neighbouring area to live in. He also decided that whenever he wasn’t travelling, he would spend evenings and weekends with his family.

It’s easy for scientists to be consumed by their work. But striking a balance between work and life outside the lab–whether it’s family responsibilities, hobbies, or time spent with friends–can improve both personal well-being and scientific productivity. “I enjoy science [much more] now that I have found a good balance, and I also enjoy my personal life especially after a good [day] of work,” says Lecuit, now a father of three and leader of a research group of 10.

“Most people have an idea of an ideal work-life balance, but it’s very hard to achieve,” says Open University senior lecturer Clem Herman. “There are a lot of pressures all around, from the workplace but also internally.” Scientists who have successfully dealt with those pressures have much advice to offer. Although the specific answers depend on how you work and what you do to escape work, finding a good work-life balance starts with self-awareness and openness.

Competing pressures

Young scientists are especially at risk of losing their balance. “The pressure to prove yourself is very high, so that makes [you feel] like you have to work very long hours and very hard,” says Madelon van Hooff, a 28-year-old psychologist in the Netherlands who specialises in work issues. Workers are especially vulnerable when they “feel passionate about what they are doing and feel that they make a difference, or move into some new and exciting things and get caught up,” adds Julie Hurst, a performance coach and founder of the Work Life Balance Centre in the United Kingdom.

Lecuit, who researches the organisation of epithelial tissues in developing organs, learned to resist these temptations at about the time he became an independent scientist. “The way that I’ve decided to do my science is very much determined [by] the kind of life that I want to live with my wife and family,” he says. He chose to take his (CNRS) position at the Developmental Biology Institute of Marseilles-Luminy because it offered an excellent scientific environment and a location with a relaxing lifestyle–in between hills and beaches, with schools and children’s activities just a stone’s throw away.

Lecuit balances work and family by keeping them separate. “One is not run without consideration of the other, but the solution that was found is that they are run in parallel,” he says. He takes the children to school in the morning and spends most evenings and weekends with his family, doing his share of the housework and taking responsibility for the children’s musical education. Lecuit says he and his wife considered the advantages of him coming home earlier and doing some work from home, but they decided that it’s better for him to finish in the lab so he can be fully available afterward. “My wife and I prefer this balance,” he says.

This approach involves some sacrifices, but overall it “benefits the way that I am working,” Lecuit says. “The necessity to be more organised and balanced helped me to [become] more productive in the lab.” Keeping evenings and weekends to himself and having chosen an easy-going institute keeps him fresh and scientifically fertile, he says. “If I was in a very stressful, extremely busy environment, that would sterilise me,” he says. “I wouldn’t be able to enjoy my work and be productive and creative with things.”

No travel, no work

Yani Najman, a 39-year-old lecturer at Lancaster University in England, has personal and professional aspirations that are entirely different but no less fulfilled. “The idea of a work-life balance is an odd concept to me because work is part of my life. … I enjoy my work, but I also enjoy a lot of other things too,” such as spending time with her parents, siblings, and friends and pursuing outdoor activities. Above all, travel is “one of my life’s passions,” Najman says. “If I couldn’t travel with my work, I wouldn’t be doing this work.”

Najman’s research on tectonics in the Himalayas regularly takes her to Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Tibet, Myanmar, and the Andaman Islands. Currently, she collaborates with nine different labs around the world. All told, Najman spends 3 months of the year travelling for work, and in her free time she goes on expeditions on foot, bike, or skis.

All this travel is possible because in her department, intensive teaching loads are concentrated in short periods of time, and her administrative duties, including the running of an undergraduate programme, do not require her to be available at a specific time. So she usually restricts her vacations to the summer, but she will take them during the school term if she had to spend most of her summer doing fieldwork. And while she often puts in extra hours to meet deadlines or to make up for time away, she compensates by taking time out for personal activities once pressing duties have been met. Also importantly, “I try to minimise what I consider ‘dead time’ “–any moment that is not spent on one of her specific interests. She rarely watches TV and always works on her laptop during plane and train journeys.

Najman is able to enjoy such flexibility today because she was clear about her aspirations and looked for an appropriate place to pursue them. “You have to find a supportive department who understand[s] your needs,” she says. As a postdoc, “I was really worried about how I would cope as a lecturer when I would have all these restrictions on me,” she says. But in her university, it turned out well. “I don’t know how to work in another way. That’s the way I am,” she says. She also tackles potential problems before they arise. If she sees that she will be too busy to do an important task, she informs all the people who may be affected. “If you say a week in advance ‘Look, something needs to go,’ often people are okay about it and you can reschedule a deadline.”

A personal journey

In spite of the many pressures that rule the academic world, Lecuit’s and Najman’s examples show that scientists can combine their personal and professional lives in a variety of ways, and that the benefits of a successful balance are many. But striking a good balance, Lecuit says, is both a personal journey and a gradual process. It requires a good understanding of what is important to you, of your strengths and weaknesses, and of the conditions in which you work best. With this kind of self-awareness, as you gain independence you’re more likely to find a match between work and lifestyle. “Go on your own way and do what makes you happy, and if that’s not possible without impinging negatively on others, then maybe you need to switch job or career,” Najman says.

Herman suggests considering “the whole picture of yourself” by assessing how much of your time and energy you should spend on work, family and friends, leisure, community activities, and anything else that’s important to you. How should you spend your time if your goal is to be a successful, well-rounded, happy person? One way of evaluating this is to draw what Hurst calls a “balance wheel,” allocating a spoke to each area of your life and plotting how much of your efforts you are investing, or would like to invest, in it. Alternatively, Hurst suggests writing your own epitaph that says what people are likely to remember about you, then ask yourself if that’s what you actually would like to be remembered for. “Would it be ‘Worked hard in the office,’ ‘Went sailing,’ or ‘Was a good parent’?”

“Work-life balance is very much a personal issue, and nobody can define what’s right for an individual” but him or herself, says Herman. “For some people, their commitment to their work means that they want to put in extra time. For somebody else, other aspects of their life [are] equally important.”

More Tips From the Experts

Further resources

  1. Time-management advice from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty

PartTime Science in Perspective

WorkLife in Industry: Thinking Outside the 9to5 box