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The Happy Academic

The art of a getting a great summer break

Want the summer break you need? Prepare to work at it.


While some academics work through the quieter summer months – many of us prefer a genuinely refreshing summer break. But as we’ve written before, great summer breaks don’t just happen. Indeed, a fantastic summer break demands as much deliberate action and discipline as any part of our regular work. Yet, the high health and wellness stakes involved justifies that we all need to get more serious about our holiday fun.

Here is our guide to getting the summer break you need:

1. Define your own great break

Summer breaks for academics are as value-laden as our work: diversity abounds in wants and needs. Early mornings or late nights? Stay put or travel? We all have our preferences. Because of this, it’s important to reflect and consider what a great break is for you. Not a good or nice break, or one that works for someone else, but your own personal knock-it-out-the-park break. Force yourself to write down what this supreme break is for you – and consciously don’t compromise: avoid listening to the inner-critic voices that tell you this won’t be possible. Instead, dream big.

For those academics in casual employment or circumstances that are not conducive to your ideal summer break – try to identify what is possible.

2. Give yourself permission not to work

Academics are prone to threading work in and through our vacation time. Post-pandemic, more academic work than ever can be done anywhere. This is both a blessing and a curse. With ubiquitous time-shortage throughout the rest of the year, when presented with less structured time we almost automatically start to fill it with academic work yet undone. To get that tricky manuscript done, to do the admin projects the rest of the year galloped into the dust, to work to get on top of it all again.

Yet, this is not the path to summer rejuvenation. In their research-based book on avoiding burnout, Emily and Amelia Nagoski show how failing to break our stress cycle over time causes the burnout that is endemic in academia. Our bodies and brains, they argue, need a change from the normal demanding patterns of work; to reset, and recalibrate. If we don’t deliberatively do different things, our personal risk of burnout increases exponentially.

3. Prioritize that which gives you flow

Burnout is often wrongly seen to be synonymous with physical exhaustion. But as the World Health Organization defines: burnout is actually a fusion of cynicism, reduced energy, and reduced efficacy. Burnout is particularly tricky because, paradoxically, people who are burned out are less well-primed to be able to recognize it in themselves.

To reduce your personal risk of burnout, the Nagoskis draw on decades of research to recommend the priorities of those non-work activities that provide you flow. That allow you to forget yourself. On our summer breaks, we find water sports with the kids (Bailey) and soccer (Alex) to be our personal paths to this sense of immersion. Include these where you can as part of your break, and mobilize whatever supports and factors you can to make them happen.

4. Address your guilt

As academics we often define ourselves by our sense of competency and contribution to our discipline or field. This sense of “being” your work, makes leaving work behind, even for two weeks of the year and even when we know deep down we really need it, hard.

Guilt can nag and rob us of the time and true mental break we need. Sometimes instigated by requests from impatient colleagues or endless invitations to review manuscripts, alas, we’re more often instigators of our own guilt, as self-reflection morphs into self-criticism. We often cloak this in martyr narratives to transition our sense of choice and agency into wholesome altruistic regard for others irrespective of the consequences for ourselves.

Yet, remembering the unique nature of academic work as extreme knowledge work, working too hard or too long is actually a false economy. The sense of never having sufficient time is a function of the inherent super complexity of both academic work and time. As we’ve written: there will never enough time – accept this. The work will never go away and there will always be more you could do.

While more work is always possible, working too much in this way destroys the creativity, vitality, and energy required to do your best academic work. We should care about delivering on our break plans because, not despite, of our desire to be productive.

Some may frame this rejection of continuous work as a function of privilege. While it’s important to recognize our own privilege, believing humans as helpless in the face of the demands of academic work, is itself disempowering. Whether in others or ourselves, this also assumes that working more hours will inherently lead to an improved resume or greater attractiveness to employers – a stance that is wrong both theoretically and empirically.

And remember as you grapple with your guilt, truly stepping away from work for a short break over summer sets an amazing example to colleagues, mentees, and students of the discipline required to truly stay creative and engaged in your work and workplace over the years and decades. Role-modelling good boundaries around you own break is one of the most powerful and influential forms of cultural behaviour you can show to others.

5. Get proactive, get practical

If you wan to have a relaxing break, you can’t relax your preparations. The path to a great break is replete with great intentions. However, all too many colleagues emerge in late summer and fall bemoaning their lacklustre break and state. Time flew, boundaries broke, hearts ultimately sank. Since good breaks don’t just happen, there’s much you must prioritize to set yourself up for a successful break.

Firstly, get plans in place for the predictable. For example, emails will come, even when you are away from work. Instead of checking email every or even some days, set up an out-of-office message with clear dates to manage expectations and clarify when you will return. Catch yourself quivering about urgent emails? Remember, there are simply very few situations in which emails must be answered right away by only you, and you can pro-actively communicate to key contacts when you will be away, and that you won’t be checking email. This is important for you, but also to contribute to building healthy cultures founded on reasonable expectations – reducing others’ expectations for immediate responses.

Block the time you will be away proactively in your calendar and decline meetings during this time. Whether it be extended long weekends throughout the summer, or an extended chunk of vacation time – think about what will work best for you, and then block that time off.

Also, take some time before you step away to reflect and plan for the fall. Often the endless flow of tasks and to-dos that pop into our heads become a distraction for a true break. At best, set some priorities and goals for September now, but at the very least, do a quick brain-dump of everything you can into a notebook or virtual document to revisit after your break.

It isn’t too late to do the work that is needed to get a great break. We wish you a wonderful summer!

Bailey Sousa & Alexander Clark
Bailey is associate vice-president of planning, quality and assessment at Athabasca University. Alex is president of Athabasca University. They are both founders of The Effective, Successful, Happy Academic, and the authors of "How to Be a Happy Academic" (Sage: London, 2018), they share a passion for effectiveness and aspiration in academic work.
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  1. Tom Worthington / July 5, 2023 at 19:27

    The Canadian university’s love of the summer summer break is something I could never understand. I was an Australian international online student at Athabasca University. So the long summer break was during my winter. Also as a part time working student I wanted to get my studies done as soon as possible, so why insert a long break, rather than an extra term? In my Australian studies I was able to take advantage for different schedules of institutions, to study at one while the other was on holidays. Australia’s online university consortium has four study periods a year, with only a short break in between each. Students and staff who want a long break can simply skip a term. Perhaps North American institutions would consider this approach.

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