UM to tackle work pressure from all angles

UM to tackle work pressure from all angles

Mentor system, dealing with whining students, psychological security


MAASTRICHT. An academic calendar that will provide staff members with more breathing space, dealing with whining (and time-consuming) students, and a separate paragraph in all new policy plans on: what are the consequences of this plan on work pressure.

Next academic year, work pressure and the well-being of employees will be tackled from all angles, according to the fifteen points of action drawn up by the Taskforce Sustainable Employability – put together by the Executive Board – which will soon be discussed by the University Council. Nevertheless, the chairman of the Taskforce, professor Harald Merckelbach, feels that the phenomenon work pressure will never totally disappear: “It is in the nature of our work, research and education will always go hand in hand with deadlines and pressure.” Moreover, it is a complex problem, professor Fred Zijlstra adds. There isn’t just a single factor that causes work pressure, there are many, often different ones per faculty, service centre or department. Just as importantly, Zijlstra emphasises: it is not an individual problem, “we need to get away from that idea, because it is in the system”. For example, look at the years of insufficient government funding: over the past thirty years, the number of students has only risen, while government funding has lagged way behind.

In short: it is a process that takes time, Merckelbach adds, and “an effort by many”.

High work pressure

The fifteen points of action – in addition to the aforementioned example, the introduction of teaching careers (closely related to the Recognition and Appreciation project), rest and recuperation time for employees, and psychological security on the work floor – don’t come out of the blue. They were the outcome of a project in which Zijlstra, professor of Work & Organisational Psychology, together with fellow scientists and HR staff, was and still is closely involved.

It started with the Sustainable Employability Monitor, a survey on well-being in which more than 2,800 employees participated (63 per cent of the total) in the autumn of 2018. The most important outcome was that most employees are satisfied about their work at the UM, but the differences between individuals are great. Work pressure, age and the balance between work and private life play a major role in the degree of satisfaction. The group of respondents of around forty years of age – in the prime of their lives, with a career as well as (relatively) young children – have a tougher time than colleagues who are younger or older. 

How bad is the work pressure actually? Thirty-seven per cent experiences it as high or extremely high. Remarkably, assistant professors feel most pressured, followed by PhD candidates.

Together with UM staff - in eighteen so-called action-oriented reflection groups, a total of 153 employees from all sections - the taskforce went in search of solutions for the work pressure, as well as possibilities for more inclusivity and psychological security. This has resulted in the fifteen points of action that are now on the table.

Saying ‘no’ to your boss

After the summer, there will be a proposal for the improvement of psychological security on the work floor. “Do you dare say ‘no’ to your boss? Do you dare to say to your boss that there is a problem? Do you dare to say to your group that you don’t like certain jokes? That you feel left out when they keep speaking Dutch when you really don’t understand it very well yet? That is what it is about,” says Zijlstra. Leaders have an important role here. They are going to take courses so that they learn to become aware of these problems and learn how to deal with them.

Catching your breath

Another point is the academic calendar, which a working group is now looking into. Merckelbach: “Our academic year begins early and ends late. It just goes on and on, people don’t have time to catch their breath. At the UM, we set high demands for ourselves and our students. We could tone it down a bit. We don’t always have to have blocks of six to eight weeks, the quality of education is not going to drop drastically.” Also: “On paper we have summer holidays, but resits continue, e-mails keep coming in, just like theses.” Zijlstra: “You will have to make choices. If we choose to shut down for the month of August, the deadline for the master’s theses is 31 July and it will be checked in September.”

Myth of the real scientist

Merckelbach then refers to the “myth” that you can only be a scientist if you work more than forty hours per week. A discussion that also ran in Observant at the beginning of this year. “Young people find this threatening. A mentor system, which has already been launched at the Faculty of Psychology and Neurosciences, could play an important role. The mentor is not your boss, but someone with whom you have no direct working relationship. You speak more easily to a relative outsider. You can speak with them about your career, the balance between work and private life, and learn to set priorities. Learning to say ‘no’ to your boss when you become overwhelmed with tasks.”


Lastly, the two refer to the student evaluations, a thorn in the side of many tutors. “Colleagues are of the impression that they will be ‘punished’ because a block is too difficult, because they set strict demands, speak to students because they didn’t do the work. I was shocked how often this was mentioned during the meetings in the reflection groups,” says Merckelbach. Zijlstra feels that this must change. The consumer behaviour of students must be curbed. The evaluations must be about the quality of the block instead of settling a score. A code of behaviour could be helpful.