Faculty Work-Life Balance in the Pandemic: A Discussion with Dr. Megha Anwer

It didn’t take a pandemic for Dr. Megha Anwer to start thinking about the blurring lines between our work and personal lives.  But it has certainly emphasized her work’s importance.

Dr. Anwer is a Clinical Assistant Professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in the Honors College.  She originally began writing about work-life balance prior to the pandemic, as part of Purdue’s Susan Bulkeley Butler Center for Leadership Excellence’s Roundtable on Faculty Work-Life Balance, which was then adapted into the Center’s Working Paper Series.  In this essay, she argued that faculty across the nation were facing increased workloads and expectations, and that there weren’t very many structural solutions offered to support faculty who were expected to find individualized solutions.

At the time, she wrote, “It is important to note that the predominant strategies advocated for achieving work-life balance put the onus for addressing and rectifying structural pressures that faculty encounter on individual faculty themselves…These individualized coping mechanisms, however, only bandage over transformations that actually require collective addressal.”

She wrote this in fall 2019, prior to the pandemic. Since that time, the pandemic has only increased challenging workloads, for both faculty and students, further illuminating these “work-life” issues.  This is one of the areas that the Purdue Center for Faculty Success works to address, which collaborates with the Butler Center for Leadership Excellence.

“Everything is impacted,” Anwer explained, “from an intensification of our precarity, to decreased resources to pursue professional and pedagogical development opportunities, which in turn have a direct bearing on their promotion and tenure success; to an escalation in care-work – of children, elderly and ailing family members.”

In fact, the issues Anwer points to in her research spread beyond higher education and have a particularly poignant impact on women. Some have coined the COVID-19 pandemic the first female recession, meaning female job loss is outpacing that of men. Furthermore, in as many as 1 in 4 women report considering exiting the workforce or reducing paid work to meet family demands in a 2020 McKinsey & Company Study.

To draw attention to these developments, specifically in higher education and among the lives of faculty, Anwer followed up with a second publication in spring 2020, also with the Butler Center.  This one, titled “Academic Labor and the Global Pandemic: Revisiting Life-Work Balance under COVID-19,” further explored these issues.  A particular point of emphasis between these two articles is the need for collective addressal of work-life balance, in ways that are deeper than linguistic reframing (such as rephrasing it “life-work” instead).

“A collective addressal will require seeing ourselves as a collective, with shared interests and a shared vision,” she said.   “A university should offer students, faculty and staff the opportunity to engage with ideas and engage with the world, to ask difficult questions about what needs rectifying, and imagine creative, collaborative, compelling solutions for how to fix things.  This requires courage; risk-taking; a willingness to work together, through differences; to prioritize well-being – emotional, physical, intellectual sustenance. And in these conversations, we must prioritize attending to the differentially distributed vulnerability that faculty, staff, and students of color, sexual, ethic, racial minorities, and first-generation students experience.”

Among these concerns are the efforts of campuses to attend to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Much of this work is done by faculty of color, especially women of color, and are often the same faculty that are overworked, while also being expected to attend to DEI work.  While these inequities exist, further DEI efforts could suffer.

“Valuing the labor done to make universities safer, more inclusive, spaces – by faculty, students, and staff — is integral to process of working towards inclusivity,” she said. “The journey of moving towards inclusivity cannot rely upon extracting more unacknowledged, uncompensated labor from those already vulnerable, those most impacted by inequity.“

The papers, which touch on these and many other aspects and challenges of faculty work-life balance, can be read in full at the Butler Center’s website here and here.