“Lying flat” is a cultural term in China that originated from a social movement advocating for a more relaxed and minimalist lifestyle, often associated with rejecting intense competition and societal pressures. In the context of the academic community, it refers to individuals feeling overwhelmed and choosing to disengage or reduce their involvement in academic pursuits.
Many researchers dislike the term “lying flat,” but quietly reduce their unseen efforts.
When Isabel Müller became an assistant professor in 2021, she found herself working seven days a week, sixteen hours a day. While no one required her to work at such high intensity, she couldn’t complete all her research, teaching, and student-related tasks in fewer hours. As the first semester progressed, Müller realized that this work pace was unsustainable. If she wanted to stay in academia, she had to set boundaries. “It took me another semester to adjust, but now I set rules for myself,” she said.
Müller is a mathematician at the American University in Cairo, and there are many individuals like her who are redefining their relationship with work, setting boundaries to protect their mental and physical health and prevent burnout. The desire for work-life balance has long existed, but the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact have made academics more aware of the importance of this balance. In August of last year, a TikTok video about “quiet quitting” sparked discussions on how to achieve a balance between work and life. In this context, “lying flat” refers to employees not taking on tasks beyond their responsibilities and not accepting the “hustle culture” of overwork. In academia, it means researchers no longer engaging in unpaid, unacknowledged, or unseen work.
For Müller, “lying flat” means having a personal life outside of work, considering oneself. “I really don’t like the term. Anyone who tries to control their work hours is already in a bad mental state,” Müller said. “The meaning of ‘lying flat’ is very negative, and it only makes you feel worse.” Many researchers scoff at this term, stating that they have no intention of giving up or remaining silent. They refuse to avoid discussing their desire to establish healthy boundaries between work and life, prioritize mental well-being, and protest against toxic work cultures
Nature interviewed Müller and other researchers, asking them why and how they set these boundaries and what kind of support they hoped to receive from their institutions. Some respondents also participated in an online survey conducted by Nature from November 7th to 15th last year. The purpose of the survey was to assess the prevalence of “lying flat” among the scientific community, understand why they chose to “lie flat,” and identify the activities they gave up the most.