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Academic Work/Life Balance: Challenges for Theory and Practice

Nick Osbaldiston & Fabian Cannizzo

Re-Examining Academic Work/Life in Neoliberal Times

In our forthcoming article in the Journal of Sociology, ‘Academic Work/Life Balance: A Brief Quantitative Analysis of the Australian Experience’, we explore how academic staff experience work/life balance, finding that the concept of ‘life’ within the work/life dichotomy has often assumed characteristics. The distinction of work and non-work life is a historically-contingent coupling, with its most recent manifestation in the discourse of work/life ‘balance’ during the 1990s (Lewis, Gambles and Rapoport 2007).

Within neoliberal thinking, both work and non-work life are conceptualised as enterprises managed the individual who is implored to be ‘an entrepreneur of himself’ (Foucault 2008, p. 235). Debates and global policy flows throughout the 1960s championed the development of post-industrial knowledge economies. The OECD endorsed the place of universities within this new economy by positioning both knowledge and knowledge workers at the centre of national prosperity (Kenway, Bullen and Robb 2004).

While many academics are engaging with management practices, such as performance management models to validate their professionalism, early career researchers and other marginalised groups may find limited opportunity to experience autonomy through these processes (Bolden et al. 2012). The experience of academic autonomy is difficult to divorce from an academic’s identity however, as much academic work is motivated by the potential to acquire status amongst colleagues (Blackmore and Kandiko 2011). With increased pressure on academics to assess their work performance against their other (non-work) goals and interests, academics are charged with the responsibility for assessing and balancing their own work and non-work lives.

Neoliberal and managerial reforms to the higher education sector have been defined as a series of problems to labour management in academia. Richard Winter et al. (2000) documented some impacts of managerial academic workplaces, coining the phrase ‘Quality of Academic Worklife’ to describe the link between the perception of deteriorating workplace standards and the low levels of organizational commitment that they observed. Currie and Eveline (2011) have documented an established expectation that academic work will involve working non-standard hours, describing it as a ‘long hours culture’ enabled by information communication technologies.

The expectation that academic work will be both labour intensive and extensive (i.e. occur outside the workplace) have implications for the uptake of flexible work arrangements. Sharafizad et al. (2011) argue that work role expectations play a large role in producing barriers to the uptake of flexible working arrangements, as individuals may feel that using flexible or part-time work options may impact their career (also see Strachan et al. 2012).

These expectation produce compounding issues for casually-employed academic staff, who often report low levels of career stability (Gottschalk and McEachern 2010) and who are more often women rather than men (Marchant and Wallace 2013). Poorly regulated work hours, combined with the expectations embedded in the long hours culture may result in labour intensification and further individualise the management of work/life balance. As Currie and Eveline (2011, p. 547) comment, ‘[academics] see themselves as ultimately responsible for making it all work, and admitting to stress in that individualistic framework would be to perceive failure and invoke self-blame’.

Academic Work, Leisure and Attitudes

It is in this space that we grew interested in how academics were experience this idea of ‘work/life’ balance. We adopted a quantitative approach in order to capture how academics were experience daily their work practices and how this related to life, whatever that might mean (see below). The sample was not significantly high (n=155) but crossed over disciplines, university types (regional, group of eight and other metropolitan universities, stages of career and current employment, parental duties and of course, gender.

One of our first and important questions we sought to ask was how long these academics were working for. We were not surprised to find that our mean here was close to nine hours a day. However, when controlling for different cohorts, we found that those employed as research only academics were working longer hours than teaching and research and teaching only academics. We were also surprised, and perhaps a little uncomfortable, to see that sessional academics (many of whom had PhDs) were working in teaching positions and were putting in around six and a half hours a day. Despite this, the full-timers were working around nine hours which is above the average for a ‘Professional’ as reported in Australia (ABS, 2011). We were also unsurprised to find that most academics reported that they work sometimes on the weekend.

The other important issue we were wanting to explore was that of leisure time. We saw that in our study, most academics reported approximately around two and three quarter hours of leisure time. We did assume that there would be some differences in gender, parental responsibility or caring hours here, but when running correlation and regression on these we could find no statistically significant differences when controlling for any of these. We did surmise that one of the reasons behind this is that the idea of ‘leisure time’ can be sociological complex and therefore perhaps parents were applying ‘leisure’ to mean things like reading books to children, or other nightly caring duties.

We were also interested in how academics viewed work/life balance and asked a number of questions using a Likert scale to measure responses. Again it is perhaps no surprise to a reader that most academics were in agreement with statements like ‘I feel pressure from the University to work more hours than I presently do’ and ‘I think work/life balance is a myth’. It was interesting to note though that there was a difference in attitude towards the idea that the university provided good options for work/life balance with parents reporting higher scores in agreement with the statement than non-parents. We assume therefore that perhaps when we talk about work/life balance, many see it more as work/family balance in policy design.

Towards a Cultural Sociology of Academic Work

When we examined the findings of our research and indeed presented it at last year’s conference in Adelaide we were left feeling pretty unsatisfied with what we had. We are indeed grateful that the journal has decided to publish our study but there is a lot more here that needs unpacking. Recently we have embarked on a study with our thoughtful colleague Christian Mauri from Murdoch University to understand academic work/life more qualitatively. We aim in this future study to focus attention more on what academics mean when they talk about ‘work/life’ balance.

Is ‘work/life balance’ a meaningful concept? Or is it another term that we find floating in the neoliberal agenda which places responsibility on the academic themselves to have some idea about what that means to them personally. Indeed as we look at our findings in this study, we are left stuck in the conundrum about what constitutes ‘leisure time’ for an academic. As one participant in our recent work commented to us, reading academic papers can sometimes be construed as part of their ‘life’ and leisure activities. However, what we are also finding is that we can see that the ‘work’ component to ‘work/life’ balance is far more complicated in the new neoliberal university. As another early career researcher commented to us, ‘I love my work, but hate my job’, indicative of the divides there are in academia between work that we experience and perhaps even love, and work that is tiresome, tedious and bureaucratic.

Dr Nick Osbaldiston is a Lecturer in Sociology at James Cook University, Cairns and researches primarily in the area of migration studies and cultural sociology.

Fabian Cannizzo is a PhD candidate at Monash University, researching in the area of the sociology of higher education and academic labour.


ABS. (2011) ‘Trends in Hours Worked’, Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics. Retrieved from

Blackmore, P. and Kandiko, C.B. (2011) ‘Motivation in Academic Life: A Prestige Economy’, Research in Post-Compulsory Education 16(4): 399-411.

Bolden, R., Gosling, J., O’Brien, A., Peters, K., Ryan, M. and Haslam, A. (2012) Academic Leadership: Changing Conceptions, Identities and Experiences in UK Higher Education, London: Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

Currie, J. and Eveline, J. (2011) ‘E-Technology and Work/Life Balance for Academics with Young Children’, Higher Education 62(4): 533-550.

Foucault, M. (2008) The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79. trans. G. Burchell, Houndmills and New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Gottschalk, L. and McEachern, S. (2010) ‘The Frustrated Career: Casual Employment in Higher Education’, Australian Universities’ Review 52(1): 37-50.

Kenway, J. (2014) ‘The Knowledge Economy as Global Assemblage’, pp. 277-80 in A.P. Reid, E.P. Hart and M.A. Peters (eds.) A Companion to Research in Education. Dordrecht: Springer Science+Business Media.

Lewis, S., Gambles, R. and Rapoport, R. (2007) ‘The Constraints of a ‘Work-Life Balance’ Approach: An International Perspective’, The International Journal of Human Resource Management 18(3): 360-373.

Marchant, T. and Wallace, M. (2013) ‘Sixteen Years of Change for Australian Female Academics: Progress or Segmentation?’, Australian Universities’ Review 55(2): 60-71.

Sharafizad, F., Paull, M. and Omari, M. (2011) ‘Flexible Work Arrangements: Accessibility in a University Environment’, Australian Universities’ Review 53(2): 43-49.

Strachan, G., Troup, C., Peetz, D., Whitehouse, G., Broadbent, K. and Bailey, J. (2012) Work and Careers in Australian Universities: Report on Employee Survey. Nathan, Queensland: Centre for Work, Organization and Wellbeing, Griffith University.

Winter, R., Taylor, T. and Sarros, J. (2000) ‘Trouble at Mill: Quality of Academic Worklife Issues within a Comprehensive Australian University’, Studies in Higher Education 25(3): 279-294.