Saturday, August 11, 2012

Weekend Work

Chemists, do you work weekends? Should you?

Let me clarify: as a chemical professional, I know that I'll never work the "9-to-5" hours popular in the modern workforce. The reality ends up somewhere between forty-five and sixty hours per week. I also realize I have responsibilities to my employer that continue after I leave lab for the evening: 
  1. Light email correspondence. 
  2. Taking emergency phone calls. 
  3. Reading through the literature to keep up with the "current art."
But when I say work weekends, I mean arriving at lab on Saturday and Sunday like you would on Monday-Friday: starting new reactions, taking TLCs, ordering supplies, reading drafts, everything. The Whole Nine Yards.

All work and no play make Homer
something something...
Yes, I was a graduate student once. I distinctly remember fourteen-hour shifts as de rigueur, with at least eight more hours over the weekend to keep momentum going. I worked this pace for the incentive of a terminal degree, with the promise of a brighter future where I'd at least get major holidays off. As a postdoc, your pace often intensifies, since you have limited time and resources to make a big enough splash that you'll be considered "marketable" to someone - someone who might offer you major holidays and two weeks' vacation


Well, the working world hasn't really panned out like I thought. Evening meetings occur more regularly, working lunches are standard, and now the work week bleeds into the weekend. Chores at home go unfinished. Family and friends are ignored. How's that old expression go? 
"All work and no play make Jack a dull boy."
Could this actually be counterproductive? Sure: tired workers make more mistakes, call in for more sick days, and generally don't feel as invested in company goals or culture. There's also the question of expectation - weekend work becomes an accepted part of your schedule, and employers will anticipate your future willingness to sacrifice personal time for career goals (Weekends? Nights? Holidays? Double shifts? Sleep under my desk? Sure!)

I could tell you I was here this weekend, but...
Source: Abbi Perets
The irony mounts Monday morning, when the inevitable question comes up - "So, how was your weekend?" The person asking actually expects you to talk about things you did outside of work!

What's the solution? Companies could hire more employees or offer performance incentives, but the weak economy has subdued these approaches. Managers could sit with their chemists to identify where investments in equipment or sourcing could lighten their loads, but this assumes the capital exists to finance such ventures. No, I'd guess that, for the foreseeable future, the "weekend warrior" will continue to wage war...from work.


  1. the solution is for companies/academic departments to only employ well rounded people who don't want to work weekends. there is no need, no benefit. The only way you gain by working weekends is if you are doing work that monkeys could do, where more hours in = more results out. If you actually doing something interesting with your time, this is probably not the case.

    more results aren't interesting. interesting results are. interesting results come from interesting questions, and interesting questions come from messing around.

  2. Why is 40 hours per week the standard? Because tests have (repeatedly) shown that 8-five hour shifts lead to maximum productivity.

    This should be pretty settled ground. Henry Ford didn't champion these hours because they were kind to families, or because he wanted his employees to have outside interests. He did it because he wanted the most cars made per hour, with the fewest mistakes.

  3. No. Absolutely no. I paid my dues, did my seven years of seventy hour weeks. I'm tired, I'm done and I'm taking my payoff.

  4. I did the weekend/late nights thing for about 8 years when I worked for a well-known CRO. Typically that would involve rota-vapping 45L carboys of chromatography fractions, check-weighing material in vacuum ovens, changing savant traps, reviewing batch records/writing reports, but occasionally it would involve starting/working up new reactions. I was on an H1-B visa at the time, and didn't want to be sent back to the UK, so I put up with it. I was in my 40s, so as time went on I became more and more tired. Once I got my Green Card, my willingness to continue to "put up with it" rapidly dwindled, and when the Great Recession arrived, I was "separated/laid-off/insert appropriate euphemism" with a whole bunch of other unfortunates. (Oh, and just prior to being let go, my supervisor compared my career at the company to a patient/corpse on life support. I still want to punch his lights out for that one). I now work for a much larger company, in the chemicals rather than pharma business, and so far (1.5 years in) have never had to work weekends or late nights. I hope I never have to again, as I am now in my 50s, and my tolerance for long hours is not what it was. I'm also of the "work to live, not live to work" frame of mind. If there was something really interesting and stimulating to work on, I might get sufficiently caught up in it not to notice the time so much, but let's be honest, how much of our working life is like that? Unless you're in the top 1% or so of your profession, I'm guessing not much. So I'm with Anon. 1:49P. I've definitely paid my dues, and I want a life.

  5. If your job is really interesting, you simply want to see the new results coming in as soon as possible, just to satisfy your curiosity. And you can't wait till you can assign a few hours per week to that new fascinating idea you/collaborator/boss just got.
    Also look outside the academia. Entrepreneurs usually spend crazy amounts of time in their jobs. So I totally agree with the Anon above, if it's something interesting, it becomes a paid hobby.

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