Work pressure is a topic that will inevitably come up in an interview about the COVID-19 pandemic with Mark Govers. As a member of the University Council, he is “very concerned” about employee health – both their physical and mental health. “Work pressure is already high under normal circumstances.” The digital world is only adding to this problem. “I wonder if people will be able to keep this up, especially if we have to continue working like this for a few more months.”
According to Govers, the high work pressure is the result of the way the university is structured. “Its organisation is too fragmented. Or, to use an unpopular word, way too bureaucratic. Working with students in itself isn’t that stressful. But everything around it is: filling in lists, doing other paperwork, and obtaining permission from various decision-making bodies. Examples include the Board of Examiners, the Programme Committee, education management, the controller, the University Library…” Govers calls it “a miracle” that it works at all. It’s not due to unwillingness on the part of directors and staff members, he emphasises. But rules beget rules. “It’s a vicious cycle.”
As for his own mental health, Govers says he is doing fine. Now, during the second wave, he no longer gets work emails on his phone, but only on his computer. This means he “usually” doesn’t work at all on evenings and weekends. On weekdays, he’s already outside on his mountain bike at 7:30 in the morning, or out on a walk to mentally run through his plans for the day. “I don’t do things that don’t have to be done right away.” Govers works from home. To create moments of rest, he sets alarms to remind him to take breaks. There are so many holes in his daily planner that “it looks like Swiss cheese. I deliberately plan breaks between meetings to take a short walk and get a cup of coffee somewhere.”
Govers – who lives alone – also regularly goes for a walk with his mother or visits friends, “in accordance with the restrictions”. To avoid loneliness, he finds it “important to form a bubble. If you’re spending a lot of time working from home alone, you may not just feel alienated from your work and colleagues, but also become lonely.”
Moreover, going for walks and visiting friends is important to avoid physical problems. “You have to keep your body moving. At work, you may get up and walk to the printer or stop by to see a colleague. At home, you often spend way too much time sitting behind your screen. It’s bad for your body.” This may result in neck, back and shoulder pain, but all those digital meetings may also cause eye strain. Govers can attest to this.
When the coronavirus gained a foothold in the Netherlands, Govers quickly decided to rebuild the courses he coordinates from the ground up to make them suitable for an online environment. “Leaving existing courses unchanged and just adding a digital veneer is a big mistake that many lecturers are making”, he believes. “The ‘real’ world and the digital world are two different realities.”
His newly designed courses are governed by three main rules. Number one: less is more. “What is the minimum required to teach students the learning objectives? Lecturers often tell students way too much during lectures, which causes confusion.” This happens in the ‘real world’, too. Number two: keep it simple. Govers personally thinks that hybrid education, for example, is far too complex. Going fully online is easier for both lecturer and student. And number three: plan for things not working. For example, recorded lectures are available on two different channels (YouTube and Mediasite). If one doesn’t work due to technical difficulties, students can always switch to the other channel.
“It’s not the solution”, says Govers, “but I think using recorded ‘knowledge clips’ and related team assignments works well online.” He wants to keep using them in the future. He does, however, hope that team meetings and tutorial groups will soon be able to take place face to face again. “You can tell from students’ facial expressions or their questions during the break whether they have understood you. You don’t get those on Zoom. Now, you can’t tell whether they really understand the material until they take the exam, and it’s too late by then.”
“What’s important is that UM sees this period as an opportunity to innovate. Should we even go all the way back to ‘normal’? I’m talking about education, but this also goes for staff. For example, if staff members start working from the office three days per week and working from home two days per week, we will need fewer buildings or be able to create better spaces. We will need guidance to take the good things about this period into the future with us. I do expect something from the Executive Board and the faculty boards.”