Laboring in Bioethics: Why Do We Work So Much?


Craig Klugman

Publish date

Tag(s): Legacy post
Topic(s): Professional Ethics Professionalism

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a colleague around 7pm on a Friday evening. We are serving on the same committee, which I chair, and he had a question. This led to a series of back and forth email that extended until nearly 11pm. I laughed heartily and asked myself, “When did we become expected to work on Friday night?” My observation was supported when the same thing happened with a colleague at another university on Sunday night. What did I spend the rest of that weekend doing? Mostly grading papers. A report by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that professors work more on weekends than other professions, with their weekdays filled with more meetings, advising and other activities.

According to the Harvard Business Review, a 70 hour work week (excluding commute time) is not unusual anymore. Being a faculty member is considered one of the 9% of people who work in an “extreme job” meaning where responsibilities and earnings are often disconnected. I have often joked with people that I have this job that I do but I don’t think of it as “earning a paycheck.” Instead, a paycheck shows up once in a while, but I do not connect the tasks I do with those earnings.

A 2014 study at Boise State University found that faculty members reported working 61 hours per week, averaging 10 hours per weekday and 5 hours each on Saturday and Sunday (these are not people who ever take ethics call). Seventeen percent of that time is spent on meetings, 40% on teaching-related duties, 5% on research and writing (clearly, they do not edit a blog), and the rest on mentoring, advising, and administrative tasks. The amount of time spent on email was not collected. A 2018 article in The Atlantic reported on a Twitter feud where some academics reported working more and some working less. The latter group said that summer time did not count as work because we are not paid for that time. Some also claimed that it does not count as “work” because we enjoy what we do. The work year is not evenly spread out—workloads are lighter in the summer than during the school year. Of course, most bioethicists do not have traditional academic jobs with non-teaching summers. When I moved from an undergraduate institution with 9-month contracts to a 12-month medical school, I figured that the workload would be spread out more. The result, I thought, would be not needing those 2 weeks at the end of the academic term to recuperate. The reality is that I still worked as much, but without the scheduled breaks in the calendar, I did not have time to recoup. By the time I left the medical school, I still had 1/3 of my vacation days because there was never enough time to take them all.

Art by Theresa Maatman, MD FACP

Why do we work so much besides, perhaps, liking what we do? Harvard Business Review suggests competitive pressure (jobs, promotions, grants, publications, meeting deadlines), an internet-enabled world that means we are never not connected with our work, social aspects of the job (how many of your friends are also colleagues?), and the thrill of working hard to achieve success can be addicting.

Being an academic is also, what is called, a good job. According to the Gallup Poll, a good job is one that is stable (in income) and fairly predictable where the worker has control over their hours and scheduling. For example, if a child becomes sick during the day and needs to be picked up, it’s often possible to shift tasks (or work at home) around to pick the kid up from school. For many academics, going home at the end of the work day (or working at home), one can then take time with the family and after everyone is settled in, get back to working for a few more hours. Professors are more likely to work in the 7-10pm hours than other professions. In Bioethics As Practice, Judith Andre says of being on clinical ethics call, “My work week continued through Saturday” as if that is a normal thing. Other important factors are working with students, being able to choose our research topics, “sense of purpose,” “advancement opportunities,” and “having the power to change things”. For people in bioethics and in academic, check, check and check. Only 42% of college graduates believe they hold a “good job”.

There’s another real reason we work so many hours—in the U.S., more hours means more money. “People who earn more are also working more hours in a usual week than those who are making less.” According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, working longer hours leads to “substantial rewards such as promotions, bonuses and raises, and makes them more attractive to other employers. People who worked 55 hours per week, earned 10.5% more than those who worked 40 hours.

However, this reward may not exist for faculty. A National Bureau of Economic Research study reports on “Why professors are poorly paid”. We may make more than people who did not pursue advanced degrees, but compared to people with similar educations who work outside of academia, professors make, on average, 12% less. Another report shows one of the dangers to working too much, after 60 hours per week, income actually declines.

There are social and physical costs to all of our work and not taking breaks. Burnout may be a buzz word of what afflicts health care providers today, but it is also affects those in academia and in bioethics. People working long weeks are more likely to have health problems, work-related injuries, and a reduced quality of life (is there something outside of our work?).

While data on bioethicists work hours are not readily available, as a field, we might consider doing such a work study. While, it is an honor to be able to do this work, that honor should not mean forgoing a non-work life. Is there such a thing as a bioethics work-life balance? Or are we doomed to be working with our mobile offices (i.e. cell phones) even in the middle of life’s major moments?

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