Angelique de Rijk, professor of Work and Health, specifically labour reintegration, and an Italian colleague are currently preparing a symposium – part of the conference for the European Association of Work and Organizational Psychology in Glasgow – about the quality of work at universities. “We concluded that we know a lot about work and health, but how healthy are we ourselves as a university? We see mutual competition growing everywhere in Europe, the desire to control increasing, and the freedom of employees decreasing. All factors that increase work pressure.”
In January 2022, De Rijk will present the research on work satisfaction and work pressure that she completed together with others in 2019. This was carried out at the request of the education institute at the Faculty of Health Medicine and Life Sciences (FHML). It was a ‘forerunner’ of the UM-wide Sustainable Employability Monitor in which more than 2,800 employees participated at the end of 2018. The results are almost the same.
What she found, was that employees take pleasure in their work and have their hearts in education, but they are under tremendous pressure. They feel like they have to keep the production running and are drowning in regulations. The standard hours (how much time does a lecturer receive for example for supervising a thesis, or preparing a lecture?) “are almost never sufficient. Lecturers have to do overtime to complete their tasks.” A complaint that, to date, can be heard throughout the university. An important cause is fragmentation: “The FHML teaching staff ran from one thing to the other, from bachelor, master, from health sciences to medicine. Everywhere has their own rules. This takes an awful lot of time.”
Proper summer holidays
How can we solve this? It sounds simple: fewer tasks. Or, hire new people who can take on some of the work. Something that is not so easy, as recently appeared during a meeting of the University Council. There is scarcity on the labour market, there are lots of vacancies that still have not been filled, were some of the arguments. “The people can’t be found,” was De Rijk’s reaction. “Potentially there is enough. Think about all those who have recently graduated, but also the 300 thousand disabled people waiting on the side-lines. You have to recruit in a different way. The problem may be that they only want PhD graduates.”
Shorter block periods and a proper summer holiday are also weapons against extreme work pressure. De Rijk: “You must take time to rest, there isn’t enough of that at the university. There is hardly any possibility to recover. Everyone is continually working at their utmost ability.” The result is that as soon as a child falls ill, or a parent needs volunteer aid, or a colleague is trying to cope with the consequences of flooding, the construction starts to fall apart.
It is of the greatest importance that bosses realise this. “We need involved and responsible leaders who intervene before it is too late and a member of staff needs to be sent home with a burn-out.” For some time, the block co-ordinators at FHML have been attending a leadership course where they learn how to pay attention to the main lines, to use the qualities that people have, to communicate well and – when necessary – say that a plan is not feasible. “Those courses are successful, they work. By the way, we must rid ourselves of the idea that a leader is a super hero. You are the boss, but you do it together with your team.”
Obviously, the UM should also do something about the extreme fragmentation of tasks. “Work with a fixed group of lecturers who together take on a whole year of a study programme. You can see this at other universities too. It makes the work more organised, after all, you experience the entire cycle, it creates solidarity (‘we run the year’), increases the pleasure in work, and such an organised approach often also leads to a better quality of education.”
In addition, De Rijk also argues for a pool of tutors who are at the ready in case someone drops out. “That way, your colleague – who most likely also has too much on his plate – doesn’t need to take care of things.” In the case of long-term absence, the department should be able to appeal to a social fund. “At the moment, they often have to pay for replacements from their own pocket.”
Another crucial thing is to exchange part of the regulations for more faith in staff. “Allow people to decide for themselves instead of checking everything. We are dealing with professionals. The greater someone’s autonomy, the greater the pleasure in work.” She also feels that “labelled time” for professional development (things like visiting congresses or training) are necessary.
De Rijk points out that the work pressure derived from research – she only investigated the teaching side – runs through this for the researchers. “The demands are getting higher, the chances of succeeding in bringing in a subsidy, are small. This is bad, because it takes a lot of time and effort, and the stress of dejection contributes towards work pressure. Apart from that, members of staff also have to deal with students who are also becoming overburdened. They receive too little rest too and have to meet high demands (whether self-imposed or not). We are in a treadmill and we are running after each other. We should give lecturers the space to talk to students themselves instead of referring them to someone else.”