Time away from work is crucial for daily productivity and personal development, says Atma Ivancevic.
A few weeks ago, I took my first sick day for the year. I was mentally and physically exhausted: disheartened by delays and failures in the laboratory, and constantly bad-tempered from headaches and stress. I started staying up late. I stopped exercising and gave up my hobbies. I ignored my friends, partner and family, irritated by the distractions they presented. I prioritized work to the extent that I became miserable and unproductive, existing on bad coffee and fast food.
I was not alone.
Academia glorifies long hours and late nights. “Work hard and you’ll succeed”, goes the old adage. A 9-5 day is considered easy, or worse, lazy. Some would even argue that sacrificing personal time is an essential part of postdoctoral study. My generation of scientists have, apparently, acquired a taste for smashed avocados and soy lattes, but retained the mentality that stress is normal and sick days are for the weak.
This problem is not unique to academia — it is alarmingly prevalent in many workplaces. Worse: many sectors employ people as ‘casuals’, with no entitlements for sick, personal or annual leave. A sick day costs them a day’s wages. A mental health day is scorned by co-workers. Taking time off is still perceived as an action that hinders rather than promotes success.
PhD candidates are particularly susceptible to the damaging effects of stress and work pressure. A recent study found that one in three participants are at risk of developing a known psychiatric disorder, and about half are already experiencing symptoms of physiological distress. Many of my colleagues confess they’re afraid to take time off for fear of falling behind, yet their daily anxiety negatively impacts their health and relationships. Having recently completed my own PhD (also known as He Who Must Not Be Named), my biggest regret is that I didn’t have this epiphany earlier. My time would have been better spent by working less and thinking more.
There are many benefits to taking a sick day, even if you’re not deathly ill. Breaking out of routines can help inspire new ideas and creative thinking. Problems never seem as daunting after a good night’s sleep. Time out can allow you to sort out personal troubles, making you less distracted when you return. Refreshed, you’re less likely to make mistakes, leading to increased productivity for the rest of the week.
You’re also more likely to prioritize personal development when you aren’t sleep-deprived and mentally drained. Programming is an excellent example where efficiency is valued over hours spent. Learning to program can help you automate everyday tasks, freeing up your time to write that paper. To get started, grab a copy of Automate the Boring Stuff with Python or try a course on Codecademy.
If the only thing you achieve by taking personal leave is eight solid hours of unbroken sleep, it’s worth it.
Since coming back to work, I’ve felt motivated and energized. I prepared lunch for every day of the week and exercised for longer than 30 minutes. I remembered how to socialise and check on others. I even found time to write a blog post! My new mantra is to work smart, not hard. So take a health day every once in a while, and enjoy the benefits to your career and wellbeing.
Atma Ivancevic is a neuroscience postdoc moonlighting as a freelance writer. During the day, she works at the Adelaide Medical School in Australia, using bioinformatics to investigate the genetic basis of neurological disorders. Outside of work, she enjoys cycling and Game of Thrones. You can follow her on Twitter, ResearchGate or LinkedIn.