Academics in all fields worked longer hours during the COVID-19 pandemic than they did before. That is according to a new study by an international team of researchers, who also found that longer working weeks have become part of a “new normal”. This could exacerbate pre-existing problems around stress and burnout, the authors say (PLOS ONE 17 e0273246).
Chronic overworking and its associated health risks are a longstanding concern in academia, with scholars working longer hours than average even before COVID-19 struck. The latest study reports on a longitudinal survey conducted during 2020 to investigate how the pandemic affected working arrangements.
The researchers used the Scopus academic database to obtain a list of all authors who published research in 2019. In May 2020 they sent a survey to 126,000 randomly selected authors, asking them how much time they had spent on various activities, and how much they would spend under normal circumstances. The researchers collected an effective sample of 525 respondents. They then sent a follow-up survey in November 2020 and received 169 replies.
The data show that academics worked three hours longer each week during the pandemic, on average, bringing the new weekly average to 51 hours in total. This pattern appeared across the board, regardless of country, gender or specialization. The main reasons given for the increase include teaching as well as having to adapt to interacting with students remotely. Time spent on administrative tasks also increased, while time spent on research remained roughly the same. However, rather than being part of a temporary adaptation phase, this new longer work week has now persisted as the “new normal”.
The researchers believe there could be many explanations for the effect, including the difficulty of separating leisure and work time as well as university administrations encouraging longer working hours. There is also continued uncertainty around whether academics will have to resume online teaching, so the community has not yet returned to its pre-crisis state.
The importance of taking time out
Co-author Anna Panova from HSE University in Moscow suggests that universities should have a well-defined crisis plan to reduce the impact of uncertainty should it happen again. “They could increase the number of IT staff, improve digital literacy among faculty members and provide access to psychological support,” she told Physics World. “The phenomenon of online meeting fatigue suggests that we should also reduce the number of these meetings.”