Highway to health

I had a rude awakening a few weeks ago when I realized I was driving with almost no brakes. I commute to work (45 minutes each way), so driving is a big part of my day. I knew something was not quite right with my car but I kept ignoring it and putting it off because I was too busy. “I’ll get to it when the semester is over,” is my motto for pretty much anything that is not work-related (and some that is, like research). But only after realizing that (had I not been pressured by a colleague to get my car checked out) I could have ended up driving on I-95 at 70 miles an hour with no brakes did I see how messed up and dangerous this life philosophy is.

First of all, you have to really try to ignore the metal-on-metal screech that your brakes make when they are almost non-existent. (It would have helped if I had seen this commercial sooner.) But even before it got that bad, I knew something was off and I tried to convince myself that my car was OK. This is really stupid for someone who drives a long distance to work every day. It’s even more stupid when you realize that it is very easy to do this even when you’re busy, since all you have to do is drop your car off at the mechanic and get a ride from someone else (or in case you can’t, rent a car for a couple of days). But I guess that’s the thing, sometimes you’re busy and you prioritize urgent things (like grading homework or teaching) over important things (like making sure you’re not endangering yourself and others by driving without brakes). In any case, I have good brakes now (it wasn’t even that expensive), I got my car back by the end of that work day, and I learned an important lesson.

But this brings me to the bigger problem: academics are often workaholics, and thus we often tend to prioritize work over our health and safety. And this doesn’t necessarily mean that we work all the time. It just means that we don’t really use the free time to take care of ourselves. This reminds me of a terrifying blog post that I read a couple of years ago, that now I can’t find,  in which a woman academic described how she had undiagnosed cancer for a long time, because she didn’t have time to set up her annual doctor’s visit. This is much scarier and less obvious than my car problem, since cancer doesn’t have any symptoms in the beginning stages. But that’s the thing, a doctor’s appointment takes time out of your day, it takes planning ahead of time, maybe several phone calls, rescheduling (say, if someone wants to set up a meeting on that day), etc.

But there are other, more insidious, ways in which we can endanger our health by working too hard. For example, by not sleeping enough. This post was recently shared by a friend of mine on her Facebook page, and it really struck a chord with me. A former academic (recovering workaholic?) describes how much more efficient and productive she became after she started sleeping 7 to 8 hours a night, rather than the 5 that, as she puts it, she wore as a “badge of honor” of her commitment and work ethic. Another post (shared by another friend once I re-shared this one) takes this even further, by exploring a bit more about the history of “over-work” and how it used to be OK, after feeling exhausted, to take some time off to recover. This is no longer OK. I see this even with our students, some clearly too ill to perform well in any of their classes, but too stubborn or too afraid to take a medical leave.

In short, I think we need to take some time to think about the ways in which we are hurting ourselves through our commitment to our work. Sometimes, we don’t even have to sacrifice too much of our work, just restructure and re-prioritize a bit. In the end, we are more productive and more efficient at our jobs when we are healthy, so in a way focusing on ourselves and our health is really an investment. (My brakes were not exactly a health problem, but they could have led to one.)

In any case, take care of yourselves, dear readers, and I promise I will try to do the same. 


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2 Responses to Highway to health

  1. Michele says:

    Hi, great post, there is much of this I can relate to. I wrote the article about lack of sleep you linked to. I was also very guilty of putting off car maintenance! After I quit my job and finally got around to taking my car in it needed everything. How could I be so stupid? The obvious answer is that I cared more about my job than my health and safety. I am glad you are catching on while you are young. Academia is a great path, and it doesn’t have to kill you if you don’t let it!

  2. Heidi Burgiel says:

    Thank you for coming forward and making this statement.

    There are voices at my institution calling out for work-life balance, but there is also a tremendously powerful work ethic and a real threat of censure for speaking out about this problem. The first step to a sane, healthy and rewarding life experience is admitting we have a problem; thank you for helping us take that step.

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