May 26, 2024

Bionpa

You are Your Only Limit

Fed up and burnt out: ‘quiet quitting’ hits academia

9 min read

Three-quarters of researchers say that they have dialled back various aspects of their work since March 2020.Credit: Getty

When Isabel Müller became an assistant professor in 2021, she started working 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. Although nobody expected her to work this much, she says, she couldn’t find a way to fit all her research, teaching and mentoring efforts into fewer hours. But as the first term progressed, Müller realized her pace was unsustainable. She needed to set boundaries if she wanted to continue working in academia: “It took another term, but now I try to stick to some rules.”

Müller, a mathematician at the American University in Cairo, is not alone in her efforts to redefine her relationship with work by setting limits to protect her mental health and stave off burnout. The desire for work–life balance is nothing new — but the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath have brought academic workers a greater appreciation of its importance. Last August, the discussion on how best to achieve work–life balance went viral with a TikTok video about ‘quiet quitting’ — the idea that workers should no longer go above and beyond their job requirements and subscribe to ‘hustle culture’. In academia, that translates into no longer performing unpaid, unrecognized or underappreciated tasks.

To Müller, quiet quitting describes working hours that allow her to have a life outside her job and to take care of herself. “I really dislike the name. Everybody that’s trying to restrict their hours already feels horrible about it,” says Müller. “Quiet quitting has such a negative connotation; it makes you feel even worse.” Many researchers disdain the term, noting that they’re neither quitting nor being quiet about their desire to create healthier work–life boundaries, prioritize their mental health and reject toxic workplace cultures.

Nature spoke to Müller and other researchers about how and why they’re resetting their boundaries, and what they want from their employers. Some were respondents to an online Nature poll, which ran from 7 to 15 November last year, to evaluate the prevalence of quiet quitting in scientists, their motivations for doing so and which activities they cut back on most (see ‘Dialling back’).

Dialling back.Charts showing results from survey about people cutting back hours and duties.

Sick of the status quo

Since the pandemic began, many scientists have reduced their working hours and cut back on extraneous projects and activities. According to Nature’s poll, 75% of the 1,748 self-selected respondents had dialled back their work efforts since March 2020. The vast majority worked in academia (73%); others were in industry (9%), government (8%), clinical roles (4%), non-profit organizations (4%) and other workplaces (3%). Respondents were also at a range of career stages: 19% were master’s or PhD students; 17% were postdoctoral fellows or research associates; 17% were research or staff scientists; 10% were assistant professors; 22% were senior professors or lecturers; 7% were middle or senior management; and 8% were in other positions.

Nearly half of the respondents had cut back on hours or activities because they did not want to work unpaid overtime (48%), felt their supervisor did not sufficiently recognize their activities (45%), did not have enough time for their personal lives (44%) or were not receiving a financial incentive (44%). Respondents could select more than one reason, which is why percentages don’t add up to 100. However, the main reason researchers said they introduced boundaries was burnout (67%).

“Individuals have been pushed so hard for so long, that apathy sets in, motivations wane and people are exhausted. No more bringing work home and perpetuating the imbalance between work and home life,” says one anonymous respondent (see ‘What ‘quiet quitting’ means to Nature readers’).

A student pursuing an experimental-physics PhD in Switzerland who, like one other researcher interviewed, asked to remain anonymous to avoid harm to their career, began dialling back their efforts when they felt burnt out and uninspired. When they started their programme in 2018, they had been highly motivated and brimming with research ideas. As the years progressed, their work received less attention from their supervisor and collaborators. “You don’t feel like you’re contributing to something important,” the student says. “You start to detach yourself from the vision of seeing yourself in that field [in the future].”

Burnout and lack of appreciation have also led established scientists to step back from their careers. One scientist in a senior management position in government responded in the poll, “People [are] looking to stop taking on the ‘other duties as assigned’ component of their job because they believe they are not adequately compensated or appreciated.”

A professor who taught medical students in the US midwest also dialled back her efforts once her workload felt like too much. “There came a point where I was exhausted by the demands of my job — not just the hours or workload — but by the culture of the institution and all of the emotional labour that I was performing,” she says. For instance, she spent time counselling students about problems such as domestic violence and mental-health issues, despite not having training in these areas. In response to the exhaustion, she shortened her working days from 12 hours to 8 on average, avoided going to campus when it was not required and pulled back from optional activities.

But doing so did not make her feel better. “I never wanted to be anything other than a professor,” she says. “I felt like I was failing on every front because the demands were so excessive.”

Culling duties

In our poll, researchers revealed several ways that they have cut back their work efforts, to help them find a more sustainable work–life balance. Nearly two-thirds of investigators and administrative staff who responded said they had reduced their participation at conferences, and more than half have dialled back their peer-review efforts. Nearly half of senior researchers also reported limiting their committee memberships. By contrast, nearly one-quarter of early-career researchers said they had reduced their efforts in mentoring, diversity, equity and inclusion and in outreach, and one-fifth had reduced their efforts in teaching. More than one-quarter of early-career researchers commented that they had reduced their efforts in other ways, largely by focusing on fewer side projects and collaborations and limiting working hours.

Early-career scientist Ryan Swimley set balanced work habits starting with his first industry job. After earning a bachelor’s degree from Montana State University in Bozeman, he took a position as an analytical-chemistry technician at Nature’s Fynd, a small company in Bozeman that makes fungus-based, vegan protein substitutes. He went from working up to 16 hours a day, spread among classes, research and studying, to a more regular 9-to-5 schedule at the company. “My mental health is better now. I get to figure out what hobbies I want to do outside of work and pursue them,” he says.

Scientists are also cutting back on activities that don’t contribute to their own career growth or receive appreciation. “I’m more selective now,” says Jeroen Groeneveld, a palaeoceanographer at National Taiwan University in Taipei. “This month, I have two grant-proposal deadlines, so I’m not going to accept any requests to peer review other journal articles,” he says. (He is far from alone — earlier this month, Nature reported that peer-reviewer fatigue is at an all-time high.)

Groeneveld studies foraminifera, single-celled organisms whose calcite shells can be preserved in marine sediments and used to reconstruct past environmental conditions. Before August 2022, he had spent a lot of time preparing and analysing samples for other researchers in his field. Now, instead, he invites them to his laboratory to learn the techniques themselves. “That is also a form of quiet quitting in the sense that it’s not saying yes to everything any more,” he says. Doing so not only saves Groeneveld time, but also establishes his lab as a place for learning new methods and for collaboration.

Müller, the medical educator and other scientists have improved their work–life balance by not responding to e-mails or messages from students at night or weekends. Müller advocates for not scheduling exams during weekends, because it’s more inclusive for those with care responsibilities. “I try to tell my students and the other instructors, if it doesn’t fit into five days, it’s just too much.”

More-humane workplaces

Although scientists can restructure their own relationships with work, many argue that institutions should do more to address the conditions driving burnout in the first place. “This idea that you have to be working 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, has got to change,” says the medical educator. “There’s so little acknowledgement that people have difficult, complicated lives outside of work.” She suggests that US academic institutions provide employees with more sick days, paid parental and care leave, subsidized care for children and ageing relatives, flexible tenure clocks and more automatic sabbatical breaks. Institutions could also hire more teaching, lab and administrative-support staff members to help spread out heavy workloads.

Institutions and companies can provide better support for overwhelmed scientists by checking in with employees about their workloads and stress levels. Swimley notes that his direct supervisor asks about his bandwidth to take on new projects, and understands if he needs more time to complete his work. The experimental-physics student suggests that supervisors who don’t have the capacity to offer guidance or career support should reconsider bringing new students into their group. “Don’t treat people like they’re expendable,” the student says.

Nearly half of the respondents said they have dialled back efforts because of a lack of appreciation from supervisors, or a lack of financial compensation. “I think the main thing universities can do is change their priorities to take care of employees and create a workplace where people feel appreciated and seen,” Müller says. Even simple but personalized e-mail recognition of recent publications, grant successes or positive student evaluations from supervisors would go a long way, she adds.

When scientists set their own boundaries, it not only improves personal well-being, but also signals to peers that such limits are acceptable and healthy, says Müller. “It does not mean I’m lazy if I don’t want to answer e-mails on the weekend,” she says. “I hope it becomes the new normal to say, ‘My life matters. My work is an important part, but I decide what my life looks like, not my employer.’”

For a few scientists, quiet quitting can progress into quitting academia altogether. In July 2021, the tenured medical educator left her institution for a position with a non-profit organization, where she still uses her education and publishing skills. Part of her new job involves facilitating meetings with subject-matter specialists, working with authors and copy-editing educational materials. “I’m constantly learning new things,” she says.

In addition, she feels appreciated by her colleagues and grateful for her improved work–life balance. “I work 100% remote from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. At the end of the day, I shut the laptop and I walk away. No more working nights. No more working weekends,” she describes.

Her new schedule has freed up time for her to engage more with members of her professional community. She now serves in a women’s mentoring network and facilitates a monthly mentorship group for people interested in careers outside academia.

Although she says the transition out of academia wasn’t easy — she was concerned about how her peers would view her decision — she found that almost everyone was supportive. “I’ve gotten lots of back-door inquiries and quiet messages from people who are like, ‘How did you do that?’”

What ‘quiet quitting’ means to Nature readers

Have you heard of ‘quiet quitting’? If yes, what does the term mean to you?

“My salary pays me for 40 hours a week. I will work hard for those 8 hours [a day] then go home and close my computer and turn off my email. No more 12-hour days to get things done fast.” — Industry-based staff-scientist respondent

“It means not taking on more students than I need to. In my case, it isn’t because I don’t feel passionate about my work, but I feel my efforts aren’t appreciated by my current employer.” — Associate/full professor in academia

“Quiet quitting is a subtle way of pushing back in arenas where speaking up may not be acceptable or allowed … At least it gives some people a way to make a statement from the bottom up.” — Middle/senior manager in industry

What were your main reasons for introducing boundaries to your working week?

“I WISH I could dial back my workload, but it’s only increased, to the point I’m working 75–80 hours a week — I fear for my health and safety.” — Associate/full professor in academia

“Realizing that it’s better for my life if my identity is centred around more than just my PhD work.” — PhD student in academia

“I’ve realized that number of hours worked doesn’t equate well to scientific output. Taking time off to recharge and reduce burnout and exhaustion … improves performance in the long run.” — Assistant professor in academia

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