Working life or living to work? How does the ‘workaholic’ mentality disrupt science… and scientists?

Recently, Science published a lil “Working Life” piece aimed at providing career advice. In it, the author just happened to mention that, in order to get ahead as an early career scientist, he worked 16-17 hour days.

Partially in response to this article, Bryan Gaensler wrote “Workaholism isn’t a valid requirement for advancing in science”.

We’ve talked about work-life balance before in several of our conversations here in the Diversity Journal Club, especially as it pertains to mental health. Moreover, as Dr. Gaensler points out, working the 16-17 hour shift means you likely have someone helping you out – and this is likely falling on a female partner. Clearly, there are significant implications for women in this workaholic mindset.

But this got us thinking beyond how women end up with more household responsibilities. First, this narrative assumes that people are partnered and, often, have kids. Not all of us fit this mold – we may not be partnered (or even want to be) and we may not have kids (or even want them). We may have other responsibilities outside these traditional assumptions – like caring for other family members. If we frame the discussion around who has to take out the trash and change the diapers, we ignore all the other scientists out there who always have to take out the trash, who have to check on Mom. We devalue their experiences and responsibilities. Oh you don’t have kids? Must be easy for you, then.

It’s even more than that. Here at the DiversityJC, we’ve talked about how social justice and diversity work can be ignored or undervalued, but also falls on minority groups themselves. If we already make such work an “extracurricular” with little attention or weight when it comes to your career track, how, then, do those who feel it is important or their responsibility to do this work add it in to the 16-17 hours they should be doing “real research”? Are responsibilities like teaching or communicating science de-emphasized because of a fixation on the idea that research is all that “counts”? Where do we put the time aside for this work, or do we assume those that do it aren’t going to be “serious scientists”?

How does this ever lead to a change in diversity within the sciences? Is there a way many possible work schedules/styles can be seen as productive in STEM?

Finally, this workaholic mentality also means we dismiss and diminish those outside activities we care about. They assume your work is your life. We don’t allow for you to just want some time to yourself. You have to have a reason – and one that fits the narrative – to not be putting in those long hours and late nights. Yet we are whole people, and many of us have much more in our lives that make us happy. How does this fit in to our conversations about mental health in the sciences?

For our next Diversity Journal Club, we’d like to use the Science advice column and Dr. Gaensler’s post to open up this discussion about the workaholic mentality in science. How does this mentality affect your work and life – what are the responsibilities and activities in your life that go undervalued as a result? What are the implications for science and the mental health of scientists?

And, finally, is this mentality necessary? Is it a myth? What can we do about it? Does the myth of the hard-working individual render invisible socio-cultural context for career success?

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments, and “see” you on Monday 27 July at 2pm ET for our discussion under the #DiversityJC!

Emily, Ian, and Dr. PMS.


2 thoughts on “Working life or living to work? How does the ‘workaholic’ mentality disrupt science… and scientists?

  1. This “commitment” to insane work hours by (mostly male) scientists is a form of bragging and bullying. I do know that it’s hard to do a good job of teaching, research and publishing as a scientist if you work an eight-hour day–along with committee work, etc., if you’re an academic. When I was trying to “do it all,” I usually worked about ten hours a day. At the time, I had a supportive husband (with an 8:00 to 4:00 job) and three children, and I wanted to eat dinner with the family and spend week-ends with them. So I had modest success, both as a scientific researcher and as a teacher, and I’m NOT sorry now that I didn’t spend all day and half the night in the lab.

    Liked by 1 person

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