Dispelling the myth of the laid-back, pipe-smoking, oak-desk academic lifestyle, in the higher education sector pressures on academic staff are currently increasing due to factors such as recruitment and promotion freezes, a targeted reduction in staff numbers, increasing student numbers, and a greater emphasis on research outputs. Importantly, research indicates that academics often engage in long working hours. For example, on average American academics report working 55 hours per week (O’Laughlin & Bischoff, 2005), while Australian academics report working 50 hours per week (Winefield et al., 2008), and Irish academics reported the longest working hours across 12 European countries (i.e., 47 hours per week; Kwiek & Antonowicz, 2013).
It has been noted that the nature of academic work is unbounded, in that, academic work is open-ended and this may be one reason why academics get drawn into a pattern of working long hours. Academics consistently rank long working hours as a major source of dissatisfaction (Winefield et al., 2008), and evidence suggests that long working hours are associated with health problems and fatigue (Härmä, 2006).
Building upon the work of Major et al. (2002), we recently conducted a study designed to better understand some of the predictors and consequences of long working hours in academics. We used multi-group structural equation modeling to examine the direct and indirect effects of life circumstances (e.g. the presence of dependents), individual factors (i.e. workaholism; job involvement, work intensity), and organisational factors (e.g. organisation work time norms, organisational support) on work hours, work-life conflict, and psychological strain in female and male academics. Interestingly, research on gender differences in work-life conflict in academia has produced inconsistent findings. For example, Cantano et al. (2010) found that female academics had higher levels of work-life conflict than male academics, whereas Winefield et al. (2008) found that male academics reported higher levels of work-life conflict than female academics. Byron (2005) suggested that different factors may influence levels of work-life conflict in men and women, however, no study to date has examined these differences. Although research to date indicates that long working hours are associated with work-life conflict which in turn is associated with stress in academics, less is known about gender differences in the predictors of long working hours in academia, or if gender moderates the effects of working hours on levels of work-life conflict in academia. We looked at a number of potential predictors of long working hours and work-life conflict.
Research suggests that the working hours of women can be constrained due to their tendency to take greater responsibility for household duties and childcare (Lee, McCann, & Messenger, 2007). In academia, research has found that female academics with children reduce their work hours to a greater extent than male academics with children (Probert, 2005). Evidence also shows that having children predicts higher work-family conflict (Tausig & Fenwick, 2001). Based on the evidence, we predicted that:
Having dependents will predict shorter working hours, and this effect will be stronger for women compared with men; and
Even after controlling for the effect of work hours, having dependents will predict higher levels of work-life conflict, and this effect will be stronger for women when compared with men.
Major et al. (2002) reported that work hours are strongly influenced by the organisational work hour expectations communicated to employees. Furthermore, research suggests that women are more negatively affected by long working hour expectations than are men (Posig & Kickul, 2004). Therefore, we predicted that:
Higher organisational expectations in relation to long working hours will predict longer working hours; and
Even after controlling for the effects of work hours, the direct effect of organisational expectations on work-life conflict will be stronger for women when compared with men.
Supportive organisational cultures help to reduce levels of work-life conflict experienced by employees (Eby et al., 2005). Burke et al. (2008) found that academics who regarded their organisations as unsupportive of work-life balance worked longer hours than academics who regarded their organisations as supportive. Women are often the primary users of family-friendly organisational support programmes (Gerkovich, 2006) and may therefore be more influenced by the level of support they receive in relation to the use of these programmes. Therefore, we predicted that:
The perception of higher organizational support predicts shorter working hours and this effect is stronger in women when compared with men.
Kanungo (1982) reported that academics have high job involvement and that their work forms part of their core identity. Research indicates that highly job involved employees work longer hours (Eby et al., 2005). Previous work in the Australian university sector has found that men report higher levels of job involvement than women (Winefield et al., 2008). Therefore, we predicted that:
High levels of job involvement predict longer working hours and this effect is stronger for male academics when compared with female academics.
Highly job involved workers also experience higher levels of work-life conflict (Byron et al., 2005; Eby et al., 2005). While long working hours may mediate this effect, no research to date has tested this hypothesis directly. Therefore, we tested the hypothesis:
Even after controlling for working hours, high job involvement will predict higher work-life conflict.
Kinman & Jones (2003) report that many British academics regard their workloads as unmanageable and Ylijoki (2013) notes that academic work is becoming increasingly intensive. Employees who report having too much to do in too little time tend to work longer hours (Major et al., 2002). Higher work intensity has also been found to predict higher levels of work-life conflict (Skinner & Pocock, 2008). However, it is unclear if this effect is mediated by work hours. We predicted that:
High work intensity will have a significant direct effect on work-life conflict, even after controlling for the effect of work intensity on working hours.
Workaholism can be defined as a personal reluctance to disengage from work evidenced by the tendency to work (or to think about work) anytime and anywhere (McMillan et al., 2001) and can be driven by both work enjoyment and guilt-related work drive. Workaholism predicts long working hours, including more working during weekends and taking work home (Schaufeli, et al., 2008). It has been proposed that women working in competitive environments (such as academia) may have a greater tendency toward workaholism (Aziz & Cunningham, 2008; Spence & Robbins, 1992). Based on the available research, we hypothesised that:
Higher workaholism (i.e., both work enjoyment and work drive factors) predict longer work hours and these effects will be stronger for female academics compared with male academics.
Even after controlling for the effects of long working hours, workaholism will have a significant direct effect on work-life conflict.
Our study participants were academics employed in three universities in Ireland. A survey questionnaire was sent to 1889 academics and a total of 410 usable surveys were returned. Men (N=206, 50.2%) and women (N=204, 49.8%) were evenly distributed in the sample. The majority of the sample (N=283, 69%) were between the ages of 30 and 49. The majority of the sample (N=316, 77%) were married or co-habiting and 53% (N=217) had children. The sample was largely composed of full-time employees (N=394, 96%) on permanent contracts (N=365, 89%). The sample fell into four job categories; professors (N=55, 14%), senior lecturers (N=60, 16%), lecturers above the bar (N=182, 47%), and lecturers below the bar (N=95, 23%).
Results indicated that 16% (N=72) of respondents worked less than 40 hours per week. 37% (N=171) worked between 41-50 hours per week, and 29% (N=136) worked between 51-60 hours per week. 18% (N=85) worked 60 hours or more per week. Consistent with previous research (Lee et al., 2007), the study revealed that men worked longer hours than women. However, there was no difference in mean levels of work-life conflict reported by men and women. Consistent with the findings of Cantano et al. (2010), women in the current study reported significantly higher psychological strain than men. Compared to men, women reported higher organisational expectations to work long hours, higher work intensity, lower work enjoyment and lower job involvement. Consistent with previous research, longer work hours predicted higher levels of work-life conflict in women. Interestingly, results indicated no effect of work hours on work-life conflict in male academics. In the final model, the only significant predictor of work-life conflict in men was work intensity.
For both men and women, we found that high work intensity predicted work-life conflict, and higher work-life conflict in turn predicted higher levels of psychological strain. While it was hypothesised that higher work intensity would predict longer work hours, and that this effect would be similar for both male and female academics, the results revealed that higher work intensity predicted longer working hours in men only. As such, work intensity predicted both longer working hours and higher work-life conflict in men.
In relation to workaholism (i.e., both work enjoyment and work drive factors) we found that higher work enjoyment predicted longer working hours in women, but not men. The finding that work enjoyment predicted longer working hours for female academics only is interesting given that male academics in this study reported higher mean levels of work enjoyment than female academics and longer working hours.
The currrent study also revealed that men with children reported working longer, not shorter, hours, whereas having children did not impact on female academics’ work hours. Analyses revealed that men in the more senior academic positions were more likely to have children than were men in more junior positions; therefore, the effects of dependents on men in this study may be in part explained by their more senior positions being associated with more demands and thus longer working hours.
Previous research suggests that having children increases work-life conflict (Behson, 2002), however, in our study having children was found to have no effect on levels of work-life conflict. Also, contrary to hypotheses, controlling for other factors, no relationship was observed between organisational support and work hours. It may be that, in the context of potentially long working hours, even higher perceived levels of organisational support is not sufficient to offset the negative effects of high work intensity, which predicted higher work-life conflict in both male and female academics in the current study.
Our findings are important as they advance our knowledge on the significant antecedents of long working hours and work-life conflict in the academic sector. Currently in the Irish higher education sector, and internationally, pressures on academic staff are increasing due factors such as recruitment and promotion freezes, a targeted reduction in staff numbers, increasing student numbers, and a greater emphasis on research outputs. However, it has previously been noted that over-work may be voluntary and occur without any organisational rewards (Peiperl & Jones, 2001), and as seen in this study, work enjoyment was a significant factor in long working hours for female academics, which in turn caused work-life conflict. Academic freedom is highly valued, and the level of work enjoyment experienced by many academics when working leads to challenging questions as to at what point work becomes leisure. From an organisational perspective, there is a significant design challenge in relation to how best to cultivate a work environment that results in both high work enjoyment, reasonable work intensity and working hours, and low levels of work-life conflict. The challenge for universities moving forward is to design work systems and processes that maintain the agility and resilience of both individual workers and the university as a whole in the face of both internal and external pressures.
A pre-print of our published paper can be found here.
Originally published Apr 30, 2015 in ‘In One Lifespan’ @ PsychologyToday.com
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