The dreaded memory of that autumn often comes back to haunt me. The culminating point was when I had to leave a restaurant in the middle of my anniversary dinner because of a horrendous headache. When my spouse let go of me for a moment in our entryway, I simply collapsed. I had never experienced migraines before my thirties, but after this event, it became a familiar foe.
These new headaches were not, however, the root cause of why that autumn was dreadful. That autumn, alongside my paid (fixed-term!) research work, I spent all my evenings and weekends writing a funding application for postdoctoral research from the Academy of Finland. The background work for the application had already been done during the previous round, but there was still a considerable amount of work needed to finalise it; the entire theoretical framework had to be reworked and, in general, the plan needed to be more ambitious.
In retrospect, it isn’t surprising that my body was telling me that it had reached its limit.
Academic work at the expense of wellbeing
The fact that I wrote a new funding application on evenings and weekends on top of my other research work is not at all unusual in the academic world. Various surveys tell the harsh reality at higher education institutions; the excessive work being done at universities and universities of applied sciences is an unfortunately common problem. In FUURT’s member survey, more than half of the respondents who work at a university said that they do more unpaid work than was agreed on in their collective agreement (Puhakka, 2020, 87–88). In the survey directed at personnel at universities of applied sciences, principal lecturers, for example, said that they conduct their research work on their own time (Mäki et.al., 2019, 67–68).
Surely no one would deny that this is an unsustainable practice in terms of the wellbeing of teachers and researchers. The health benefits of a proper recovery from work are undeniable. Doing excessive amounts of work at the expense of your own wellbeing is destructive fuel for the academic rat race.
Why on earth are academics working on their free time and pushing the limits of their own wellbeing? It might be easy to assume that academics are just so dedicated to science that they would gladly sacrifice all their waking hours to it as well as dreaming up new theoretical breakthroughs and innovative applications while asleep. While it may be true that some have a burning desire for research, it is definitely not the whole explanation.
Uncertainty and underresourcing of academic work
One significant factor behind it all is uncertainty. My own excessive workload has also stemmed largely from this. When your own future (and that of the other members of the research group) in academic working life is continuously uncertain, it seems hard to trust that any amount of work is going to be enough. This factor is palpable in the university sector, where fixed-term employment relationships are confusingly more often the rule than the exception, even for postdoc-level academic and research staff.
Another factor creating excessive workloads is the lamentable underresourcing of academic work. The majority of research work is granted project-oriented funding but, for example, publishing processes often extend well beyond the time frame of the projects themselves. Thus, the work that falls outside of the project easily builds up.
This factor is also currently showing up in the universities of applied sciences, where an increasing amount of applied research is being conducted. The research culture in universities of applied sciences, which traditionally focus on development activities, is still quite a new thing and this puts a strain on the resources needed for such work. If the management is not fully aware of the time required for research work, there is a risk that the teachers and researchers will end up writing ambitious funding applications and scientific publications during their free time. These are cornerstones of research work that cannot be left undone, no matter how much your organisation gets points in the Ministry’s funding model for a simple blog post.
On the other hand, the emerging status of the research culture could be an advantage for the universities of applied sciences; the harmful beliefs about the normalcy of doing excessive work have not yet necessarily wormed their way into the foundations of the organisation. Hopefully, the universities of applied sciences will continue to develop the working conditions and tasks of their applied research personnel so that RDI activities will have a sustainable and humane basis for growth (see Tiitinen, 2023).
So, whatever happened to the funding application for which I sacrificed my wellbeing a few autumns ago? Wouldn’t you believe, I got the funding! When I received the decision, I was happy, of course, but I also felt a deep sense of displeasure. If my funding application had been rejected, it would have been easy to blame the system for allocating funding unfairly and randomly. This time, however, the financier seemed to validate my unhealthy overexertion, as if to say “Just continue to push the limits of your wellbeing and the money is yours!”
At the moment, making one’s own wellbeing a priority unfortunately requires an active decision, because no one else in the academic world is willing to do it for us. My decision was to never again get back into the rat race and risk my health and wellbeing. And this is a decision I have kept. If I am honest, however, this decision has been considerably easier to stick to in my current permanent employment relationship.
Ensuring wellbeing at work and humane working conditions should not, however, be dependent on one’s own decisions but, rather, should be a collective concern of all parties. The employers and financiers of academics should really acknowledge this reality.
The author is Vice President of the Board of the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers and Chair of the newly established association under the name Suomen ammattikorkeakoulujen tieteentekijät (Finnish Association of Researchers and Teachers in Universities of Applied Sciences). She works as a Senior Researcher at Jyväskylä University of Applied Sciences. In her free time, she enjoys creative writing, yoga and jogging with her dogs – but she avoids writing funding applications in her time off.
Image: Jonne Renvall / University of Tampere
Mäki, K., Vanhanen-Nuutinen, L., Mielityinen, S. & Hakamäki, S-P. (2019) Kiviä ja keitaita II. Ammattikorkeakoulutyö muutoksessa. Helsinki: Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences https://www.haaga-helia.fi/sites/default/files/file/2020-10/kivia-ja-keitaita.pdf
Puhakka, A. (2020) Niin pitkä on matka…(still a long way to go). FUURT member survey of 2019. Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers. https://tieteentekijat.fi/assets/uploads/2020/09/Tieteentekijoiden-jasenkysely2019_Niin-pitka-on-matka.pdf
Steed, L. B., Swider, B. W., Keem, S. & Liu, J. T. (2021) Leaving Work at Work: A Meta-Analysis on Employee Recovery From Work. Journal of Management, 47(4), 867–897. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206319864153
Tiitinen, S. (2023) Kestävää ja inhimillistä kasvua ammattikorkeakoulujen TKI-toimintaan. Article 5/2023. Akava Works. https://akavaworks.fi/julkaisut/artikkelit/kestavaa-ja-inhimillista-kasvua-ammattikorkeakoulujen-tki-toimintaan/
Vipunen – Education Statistics Finland: Personnel in universities of applied sciences. Data source: Annual data collection of the Ministry of Education and Culture. https://vipunen.fi/fi-fi/_layouts/15/xlviewer.aspx?id=/fi-fi/Raportit/Amk%20henkil%C3%B6st%C3%B6%20-%20vuosi.xlsb