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What are the consequences of stepping back from work?

ABC Everyday recently asked can stepping back at work be a good thing? For the people in the article, the answer seems to be a resounding “Yes”: they were able to take better care of their families; manage chronic illnesses; and/or pursue other interests. A link to a meta-analysis of academic studies furthermore says that working long hours is associated with an increased risk of stroke and to a lesser degree heart disease.

Like much of the academic literature on part-time work that I’ve reviewed elsewhere, the ABC says little about how stepping back might affect one’s organisation or work colleagues, or society as a whole. Perhaps we’d all like to step back for the reasons mentioned aboveā€”but how far can we step back while still keeping our organisations and society ticking over?

I myself have been struggling a little with part-time availability over the past two weeks, having started a commercial project that means I spend whole days working on that project without checking my academic communication, and on other days going without checking my commercial communication while I work on academic matters. Fretting that some message might be awaiting a response, or that my colleagues might be wondering where I am, makes for its own kind of stress.

Not that stepping up to work has much appeal, leaving us watching our work communications all day just in case something important comes in, or in my case giving up one of my roles so that I’m always available to respond to the remaining one. Indeed this very blog was inspired by how doing less work can be made to work (if you get what I mean).

A better idea is probably to manage expectations: if I know someone isn’t available (such as on a weekend or after hours), I can work around it, and I hope my work colleagues and students can too. Being used to having everyone in the office at the same time (at least for those of us who work office jobs), not to mention a culture of 24-hour economies amongst some, perhaps we haven’t yet developed proper etiquette or project management tools for working part-time. I’d like to think that this isn’t an insurmountable problem, and I’ve been working on solutions for my own situation over the past couple of weeks. But my experience so far indicates that it is worth thinking about, and not just brushing aside in our haste to step back.

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