“I see things within the UM that worry me”

UM staff seeks solutions for workload, inclusivity, and safety


How can we tackle the problem of a heavy workload? How can we ensure a safe working environment? Eighteen groups of employees (approximately 180 people) pondered these questions the last few weeks. Solutions will be presented in spring.

Most of the employees at Maastricht University are satisfied about their work, showed the Sustainable Employability Monitor last February, based on a survey held at the end of 2018, in which more than 2,800 employees participated. But the differences among individuals are great. Workload, age and the balance between work and private life play a major role in the degree of satisfaction. As does the feeling of belonging and a safe working environment.

The Taskforce Sustainable Employability (previously Taskforce Workload and Career) led by professor Albert Scherpbier, dean of the Faculty of Health Medicine and Life Sciences, decided to ask employees to think about possible solutions, adopting a bottom-up approach. The total of eighteen groups (the so-called “action-oriented reflection groups”) are now brainstorming under the guidance of an external expert. This external guidance allows the discussion to be as free as possible, says Scherpbier. The administrative and support staff of a faculty or service centre sit together, just like the academic staff. Each group searches for a solution for its own faculty or service centre - after all, what works for Law need not necessarily work for Psychology. The ultimate aim is to further develop the present general HR policy. 


Ad van Doesum, professor of Tax Law, recently participated in one of the academic staff group meetings at the Faculty of Law. Until recently, he had never heard of the ‘action-oriented reflection groups’, but quickly accepted the invitation. “I can look at the matter from both sides, because I am not just a professor at the UM, but also head of the Knowledge Centre for PwC (an international accountants and tax advisory company, ed.). PwC also does a lot of research into employee satisfaction.”

He sees differences and similarities between the two organisations: “Inclusivity plays a role in both, but sustainable employability plays a greater role at the university. The future within the UM is uncertain for a considerable number of staff members, for example, if you are a lecturer and have not (yet) got a PhD. Then ultimately you cannot stay here.”

It has been agreed that nothing that is mentioned in the groups, will be made known. But Van Doesum doesn’t mind saying something off the record when the interview touches on employee satisfaction. “I see things within the UM that worry me. Just look at our working conditions, our workspaces. I share a room with three to four other people, which is not so bad. But my PhD students share a workspace with many more colleagues. Even if only half are present, the rest still can't work there. It is too warm and too noisy, I think that is a disgrace.” And he hasn't even started on the shortage of classrooms and lecture halls: “That is even worse. During the summer it is unbearable in the classrooms, IT facilities are minimal. I give lectures in a cinema. Students are slouched in armchairs, which isn’t conducive to an active learning attitude. They can't take notes. Contact with the hall is less and it is too dark. This affects the well-being of lecturers and students and also affects the quality of education. I am an inspired lecturer and researcher, but I can't do a good job under those conditions. During the meeting, we looked at what we could do about these problems. It always comes back to money, of which there is a huge shortage, and that is the problem.” When it comes to workload, he sees possibilities. “We have a lot of repetitive tasks, things like claiming travelling expenses. This takes anything from half an hour to three quarters of an hour. At PwC, we use an app that allows you to take pictures of your receipts and train tickets and save them. The Finance department takes care of the rest.”


At the end of last week, Jill Lobbestael, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Psychology and Neurosciences and a member of the Maastricht Young Academy, was one of the participants of an FPN group. She has also been asked to join in. “I completed the Sustainable Employability Monitor at the end of 2018. The results of that survey are pretty general, it is important that we now discuss the problems and solutions. Workload and career perspectives are themes that often crop up in the UM's Young Academy too.”

She had no idea what lay before her last week; she feared that the discussion would be too general. “We were a small group of six, seven people and fortunately the discussion was in depth. There was room for personal stories. For some participants, it was very emotional, I had not expected that.”

She thinks that the introduction of a mentorship for all academic staff members will contribute greatly towards well-being. “I feel it is a pity that not having a mentor is the standard. You become an Associate Professor, have to publish an X number of articles each year, acquire research funding and teach. But how do you do that? What choices do you make, what are the pitfalls, how to you deal with PhD candidates, with students? It would be good to discuss that with a colleague, and as far as I'm concerned, that person need not necessarily be higher ranking than I am, as long as he or she has more experience. I have been here for ten years now and I have seen people struggle or even fall by the wayside. It would be great if such a system were introduced across the university. You don’t need to see each other every week, as long as you know there is a mentor.” She herself actively went looking for a mentor, and was successful. “It really helps.” To conclude: “A lot of things do work well at the UM, but we have now been asked to look at matters that are not working so well.”

“I see things within the UM that worry me”
Too many PhD's in one room