Beeld: Arian Khoshchin, canva.com

Working during the weekend seems to be one of the unspoken rules in academia. In this column, Isabelle Kohler encourages young scientists to set clear boundaries and prioritize their health. She also invites supervisors to lead by example and support their employees in taking time off, since a well-rested mind is not only healthier but also great for coming up with new ideas.

I always enjoy this time of the year in the Netherlands: the days get longer, the sun comes out (sometimes), people start to flood the terraces, and many weekends are longer thanks to the numerous national and collective holidays. These extended weekends give me the perfect opportunity to reflect on the importance of downtime, especially in the demanding world of academia.

During my almost five-year PhD journey, I never went to the lab on weekends. The main reason? With a three-hour daily commute, leaving the house at 6 am and returning at 7 pm, I needed weekends to sleep and enjoy some social time. The only tasks I remember doing on weekends were grading student reports and writing my dissertation during the last few months of my PhD.

Things changed when I moved to the Netherlands and my commute got reuced to 10 minutes. As a postdoc, I occasionally went to the lab on weekends to prepare or run experiments. The situation escalated when I became an Assistant Professor. Suddenly, I had to prepare hundreds of slides for new courses, juggle multiple deadlines, manage international collaborations, and answer dozens of emails daily. I found myself panicking every Monday morning when opening my inbox. That’s when I realized many people in academia work nights and weekends.

In academia, there’s an unspoken rule that has become almost a dogma: working weekends is not just common; it’s often expected, especially for early-career researchers. It’s not just about working during weekends: it’s about working much (more) than stated in the contract. This culture of overwork is unhealthy and counterproductive. Academia still tends to believe that more hours equal more productivity, but we know that the brain, like any other muscle, needs rest to function at its best. Working non-stop without sufficient rest makes us more stressed, less creative, and more prone to mistakes.

I need my weekends to relax, catch up with friends, explore new places, go for long walks in nature, or simply do nothing (“niksen,” as the Dutch say). Often, my best and most creative ideas for work (or for this column) come to me on weekends when my brain has the freedom to wander. My body and mind need time to recharge between workdays. Do I work on weekends? Sometimes, but in this instance it is by choice, not of necessity.

How many of you work weekends because you want to, and not because you have to? How many of you work the hours stated in your contract and not more? How many PhD students feel expected by their supervisors or their environment to work on weekends?

We must shift the narrative and create a healthier work culture in academia. It starts with setting boundaries. Supervisors play a crucial role by respecting weekends and encouraging regular breaks. Leading by example, such as not sending work emails when on holiday, is essential. Early-career scientists should also feel empowered to set their own boundaries. It’s easy to think that if you’re not working, you’re falling behind. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Productivity isn’t measured by the number of hours worked but by the quality and impact of the work produced. Taking weekends off to rest, recharge, and engage in activities outside of work can significantly enhance your overall well-being and academic performance. Remember, it’s your right to take weekends off and prioritize your health and happiness.

I’m advocating for a healthier academic environment, where everyone is expected and encouraged to enjoy their weekends. Embracing downtime and respecting weekends isn’t a sign of laziness or lack of dedication; it’s a necessary practice for long-term success and well-being. By setting boundaries and prioritizing mental health, we can cultivate an academic environment that thrives on innovation and discovery while valuing the well-being of its members. After all, isn’t a well-rested mind a fertile ground for the seeds of great ideas?

So, this weekend, close your laptop, step out of the lab, and remember that sometimes, the best work happens when you’re not working at all.


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