Concerns about staff’s well-being
MAASTRICHT. There have been signs that UM employees have too much work to get through, feel lonely or can’t always focus. But this has not (yet) led to a higher rate of sickness absence. Absence through illness at Maastricht University during the past COVID-19 year has remained the same as in 2019 (2.7 per cent). The past two months it was even a little lower than in the same two months of 2020.
“That says a lot about the resilience of our employees,” says Pauline Arends, head of Health and Safety, “but we are truly worried about their well-being. You want to prevent people from falling deeper into depression.” Most of the faculty directors that were approached by Observant, also noticed that staff members were looking forward to ‘getting back to normal’. Everyone is “completely fed up” with Zoom and working from home, Pascal Stevens from the Faculty of Psychology and Neurosciences, writes. “Even sick and tired of it all, as the crisis has lasted so long already,” says Katinka Bastin, head of the Staff Career Centre.
Still, these at times alarming signals from employees don’t always translate into higher sickness absence figures. “We would like to consider this as the result of all those efforts of all those colleagues,” says spokesperson Koen Augustijn on behalf of the Executive Board, referring to a range of initiatives by departments, faculties, the Staff Career Centre and the Health and Safety department. An important principle, he adds, is the attention for the individual. Giving him or her “space wherever possible. So, in consultation with the university, being allowed to come to the university to work, because it really isn’t possible at home” to staying at home for those who fear being at the university or who are carers.
The role of those in charge is crucial in this situation, says Katinka Bastin. On the UM’s site, the Executive Board emphasises therefore that ‘the boss’ is the obvious person when there are problems or if work pressure is becomes too high: “Agree on a work rhythm that is healthy and suited to your personal situation.” Pauline Arends emphasises that the Executive Board has said from the beginning of the crisis that “you cannot expect the same output from everyone as before. There is a lot of understanding when you can’t keep up.”
Managers are not just there to listen, or to provide first aid when an employee is in trouble, but they should also ensure that there is “social cohesion,” Bastin explains. “Of course, the big question is how to stay in touch in these digital times. How can you take care of your people via Zoom or Teams?” Since November, the Staff Career Centre together with HumanCapitalCare (a service provider in the field of work and health) has organised a roadshow especially for managers, a one-hour digital workshop with tips and advice (recently one for employees was also made available). “Not every team is the same size, not all people are in the same situation,” says Bastin. “Some have children, others are single. Take the foreign researchers: they came to Maastricht and most likely don’t know anyone. And there is also a group that loves working from home.” So many people, so many wishes, is what she means and that requires creativity from managers.
Furthermore, Health and Safety and the Staff Career Centre have a number of other initiatives, such as a chat with a UM coach for those who are suffering with stress or mental problems, a digital health check and, since last Friday, a weekly digital café for employees (see text box). Also in the pipeline is a luncheon walk; walking in groups of four through the city and a free lunch to be collected from the UM catering.
Balance between work and private life
Faculties are also delving into their repertoire: from a digital quiz to faculty Zoom meetings. The latter takes place every other week at the Faculty of Law. Recently, the board asked the opinion of about a hundred participants in order to “get a little more than the odd anecdotal image with regard to a number of themes,” said dean Jan Smits. The balance between work and private life appeared – not unexpectedly – “to be a concern for many colleagues. Which, by the way, we do already pay a lot of attention to, among others by emphasising that sending e-mails in the evenings and weekends is not desirable.” The board is considering employing an external coach for a workshop on the subject.
The poll furthermore showed that setting up a home office (desk, chair and computer) is not always as people would wish; half complain about physical discomfort. More than two thirds feel that the UM should therefore do more to “facilitate working from home”. There were compliments for managers; most employees felt that there was sufficient attention being paid to their well-being.
It is a little extra for employees “who are in need of more social contact,” says Pauline Arends, head of Health and Safety. Friday 12 March, was the first digital café with about nine registrations. Led by an occupational psychologist experiences are shared. Those who want to do so, can be linked to a person who will go on walks with them. “Because it may feel strange to go off with someone who is a stranger, not knowing what to talk about, we provide them with a theme. This can give them some structure.”