‘It's always more, more, more!’
Workload doesn’t only consist of an excessively long list of responsibilities. There’s also a personal component: the employee’s home situation, endurance and character play a role.
Too much pressure can lead to problems with the cardiovascular system and various psychological issues, such as burn out, according to company doctor Peter Flach.
In order to function optimally, a certain amount of stress is necessary, Flach says.
As a variety of tasks pile up for research personnel, the workload at the RUG becomes ‘terribly high’, according to one researcher.
Support staff also report they are struggling with a heavier workload.
A large amount of the workload is the result of growing accountability, or quality assurance.
Research pressures are also rising as more emphasis is placed on winning grants.
The tenure track system, educational tasks and the uncertainty of temporary work contracts can all lead to stress for employees.
The new financial aid system is meant to offer at least a partial solution. It should provide more money that will make it possible to hire more staff.
Until then, it might be a good idea to pay a visit to the Faculty of Economics and Business – at least they’ve got massage chairs.
Reading time: 24 minutes (4,338 words)
‘The workload is heavy’, begins a researcher in the arts faculty who, like many university employees, doesn’t want to be recognisable to colleagues in the article. She does web maintenance in her department, annual reports and editorial coordination for two research publications – all of it within only two days per week.
‘That has to do with personal ambition’, she says. In her free time, she also conducts research and runs a business.
‘But it also has to do with the size of the position: I actually need more hours than I have for the tasks I am responsible for. Now, I do what I can with the hours that I have. Other people have that problem, too; eventually, it’s a question of money. I think that a lot is asked of people, and the amount of time it takes to prepare and give lessons should not be underestimated.’
Work stress has led her to visit a physical therapist. ‘Physical complaints, tense muscles – I used to have problems with insomnia, but I have that fairly under control now.’
One professor of behavioural and social sciences was so stressed out that he suffered from tension and pain in his arms. ‘Now, as a professor, I have the luxury of the freedom to divide my time as I wish. Before, I had ambitious goals and I had a lot on my plate. I was often dependent on others, for example those who would make decisions about subsidies.’
That uncertainty had an impact on his health and his personal life. ‘I wasn’t burnt out, but I was so stressed out that I was afraid it was all too much. I really had to adjust my personal goals, such as taking on fewer tasks, exercising more and no longer drinking coffee.’ He works 45 to 55 hours a week. ‘That’s really not so bad, since I am guaranteed to be productive.’ Working overtime seems inherent to research work. Casper Albers, a member of the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences council, says, ‘Research is a hobby, a puzzle that you want to complete. You also work on it in the evenings and in the weekend.’
Working ever harder
RUG employees work hard . Very hard. Too hard? Ever harder, employees and board members can attest. But increasing workloads are not exclusive to universities, many are quick to add. Last year, Minister Asscher of Social Affairs called for the taboos surrounding work stress to be broken through by organising the Work Stress Week . ‘We have seen nationwide the trend that people have become busier over the past few years’, says Jorine Janssen, head of Human Resources and the Health, Safety and Environment department. According to her, ‘complete digitisation’ and social media are partially to blame. ‘It used to be that you had an inbox that you would open on Monday to see what you have to do’, Janssen says. ‘Now, messages are placed in your mailbox twenty-four seven. That makes it easy to just keep working nonstop. Times are different.’
That’s why blended working has become more common: the distinction between professional and private has become vague, work is time and location-dependent, and people do a lot of things at once. The piling up of various sorts of tasks for scientists – teaching, researching and at times fulfilling management and administrative roles – makes the work load ‘terribly high’, says Lou de Leij, until recently the pro-dean of research at UMCG. ‘That is the cost if you want to be ambitious.’ In the medical sciences, many instructor-researchers also work in clinics. The pressure put upon quality of care through cutbacks has also risen, causing fewer personnel to be available for the growing numbers of patients and students.
‘It’s always more, more, more’, says Hans Jansen, an English instructor and chairperson of the Faculty of Arts council. ‘You don’t get time for activities that are also a part of the job of an instructor. You are a member of faculty committee X, you have to give a recommendation about Y, discuss matters with colleagues, participate in councils, follow training activities, check papers, prepare and give lectures, and advise students – oh yes, and simply completely change your teaching, like we are doing now with the minor system . That’s why a position for more than three-fourths of full time is deadly for an instructor without time allocated to research. They have to teach so much that they will just drown. Eight hours a week for one course is just a number on paper. It’s too much.’
Hugo van Hees, a European law instructor, says, ‘I’m not drowning. But it depends: sometimes, there are a lot of lectures and a lot of grading to do. Working in the weekend doesn’t bother me; conversely, there are free days. There’s work, and you do it and it’s nice to do, so I don’t exactly keep track of the time.’ Communication and information sciences instructor Wim Vuijk says, ‘It’s non-stop, especially around deadlines, and you can either plan well for that or not. If you have planned poorly once, you get it right the next time. Experience plays a part: for instructors who are just starting out, it can be a lot to handle, for example the University Teaching Qualification .’
The support staff has it just as bad as the researchers when it comes to workload. One UB employee says, ‘There are periods that there is just too much work for too few people. The work changes, there is sick leave. For some people, the stress piles up due to work that you simply cannot finish.’ Janssen says, ‘Support staff often experience uncertainty. What happens to that work if everything is digitised?’ That is not a baseless fear, as evidenced by the reorganisation that occurred at the print facilities .
What is a heavy workload, exactly? ‘If the amount of work that needs to be completed and the time frame within which it must be completed exceeds the employee’s ability to do it, then that qualifies as a heavy workload’, explains company physician Peter Flach. He once led a workshop, ‘Managing Work Stress’ for managers at the RUG. ‘Particularly in combination with limited parameters – possibilities to either not do a task or to do it later, or to break it down into smaller components – and the lack of sufficient support from colleagues and managers to fulfil their responsibilities, workload can become a health risk for employees.’
A heavy workload consists of more than just an exceedingly long list of responsibilities. If that were the case, it would be inexplicable how two employees who have the same job can experience it so differently: one could be overwhelmed, and the other could happily keep on working without stopping. There is a personal component involved. ‘Stressors’ (factors which can cause stress) exist not only in the relationships within an organisation (how highly valued and appreciated does an employee feel?), but also in an employee’s situation at home, his or her endurance and character (how well can a person make choices, identify priorities and say no?).
Flach says, ‘Work pressure can cause more than merely mental problems. There is hard evidence that cardiovascular issues can develop as a result of it as well. Psychological problems such as being overworked, getting burnt out, becoming depressed or developing anxiety disorders can also occur.’
‘Still, overburdened workloads should be avoided, because then you don’t end up accomplishing anything’, De Leij emphasises. ‘There is an optimal stress level at which people function better. But if you exceed that, then people break down. If you continue to exceed it, then psychological issues can occur. At that point, there’s basically nothing left but burning out.’
De Leij says, ‘I see that in the people around me. What’s a shame is that people who are highly motivated and accountable are often the first ones to fall victim to it.’
In 2014, 32 of the RUG’s 5,500 employees were diagnosed with psychological problems that were a result of their workload and pressures they felt they were under. On average, they were on leave for 75 days. In total, 2.8 per cent of employees were on sick leave in 2013 and 2014. In 2008, it was 3.5 per cent. Those are relatively low numbers in comparison to the rest of the Netherlands (3.8 per cent on average). Out of the 2.8 per cent, seven per cent of employees were dealing with psychological complaints – work stress, but also conflicts with co-workers, for example.
Presenteeism and absenteeism
But sick leave doesn’t tell the whole story. The reason that someone takes a medical leave of absence is only recorded if a person is away for more than seven days. If it is less than that, sick employees are supposed to fill in a declaration, which only about 70 per cent of people actually do. Only employees who are sick for longer than a week or at three separate times within a limited period are expected to see a company physician.
Additionally, work pressure can also be high without resulting in a person going on sick leave. And that is a ‘grey leave’: you are sick, but you don’t call in sick and work from home, for example. Janssen says, ‘That’s common among researchers in particular. They have more freedom because their work is often not location-specific, as long as they don’t have to teach.’
Flach says, ‘Just because someone isn’t working from home is not to say that they’re actually working happily on campus. That is called presenteeism (continuing to work while you are sick), as opposed to absenteeism (being sick at home).’ In the summer of 2013, 37 per cent of the employees in the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences admitted that they had worked even when they were sick. Research conducted by Flach in 2014 revealed that out of 127 RUG employees who had not taken sick leave in the preceding year, 25 per cent admitted that they were not functioning optimally when it came to tasks such as performance, dealing with flexibility regulations and colleagues.
‘I think that the main cause lies in the accountability that you have both in teaching and in research’, arts dean Gerry Wakker says. The growing accountability requirements are causing an increase in administrative burdens: visitation, accreditation, data storage, finding a second instructor who can double check the exams you create, a second assessor for a thesis, and so on.
Many see the fraud that was committed at the applied science university, Inholland , in 2010 and the performance agreements from 2013 as the origins of administrative overload. Jansen says, ‘You can’t fart without having to fill in a form. If you are advising a student on an assignment, then you have to write a report about why you gave it the grade that you did. We have built a culture of distrust. It’s a development across society: the same thing is happening in health care and in primary schools.’
In 1979, sociologist Robert Karasek developed the Job Demand Control model (JDC), which measures how healthy work is based on two criteria: the demands – including factors such as time pressure, mental pressure and the amount of work – and the control. Demanding tasks combined with freedom to work on things in the order of your choosing results in challenging, healthy work. With mentally-demanding tasks and little flexibility, the healthiness of the work is negatively impacted. In 1990, support was added as an element.
Karasek looks at the work itself, whereas the effort-reward imbalance model by sociologist Johannes Siegrist focuses more on personal factors. The total number of responsibilities is not what’s relevant: rather, the extent to which people are stressed out by them (based on personal feeling) and how well they are compensated and appreciated for the work they do is what counts. This shares common ground with organisational injustice ; the feeling that work is not evenly distributed within a work environment can be a stress factor.
Another distinction is made by labour and organisational psychologist Ilona van Beek , between being inspired and being a workaholic ; workaholics run a higher risk of experiencing work stress than engaged employees.
Based on group interviews that Flach conducted with RUG employees and managers, when asked about which factors they considered important in terms of work stress, it became clear that managers see personal factors – character, balance between private and professional life – as influential, whereas employees consider the amount of responsibilities and the organisational elements like the presence of support staff to play a bigger role.
Many see the value of accountability , too. Chemistry professor Alex de Vries says, ‘Justifying and describing what a course is about has its merits.’ Philosophy instructor Han Thomas Adriaenssen says, ‘Now, you are guaranteed that an instructor has a good model for answers. It’s more objective.’
Research pressure has also risen. More emphasis has been placed on winning subsidies, for example those from the Dutch organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) or the European Research Council (ERC) . Scientists spend a lot of time writing research proposals, even though it is far from certain that they will reach the finish line. De Leij says, ‘The competition is gruelling.’ Wouter Heinen, director of management in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, says, ‘For the humanities, it’s difficult. You have to present your proposal well and demonstrate the social value.’
lbers says, ‘A grant from NWO is a lottery. They only award financing to ten to fifteen per cent of the applicants, and it can easily take half a year for an academic journal to assess your paper. The feeling that you are not in control is stressful in itself. You are not a bad researcher if you don’t publish. You are the most important factor, but many other factors influence your success.’
That is especially true for those in the tenure track system : a career programme that prepares instructors to become professors over the course of about ten years. New instructors are initially given a temporary appointment – in the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences , that is two, three-year long appointments – and then they have to achieve certain targets within that time period: provide quality instruction, publish a given number of articles annually, and win grants. For promotion within that track, new requirements apply.
‘Once you have tenure, then you know that you are entitled to a permanent position as long as you do good work’, Albers says. ‘But the quality of your work is measured through means that can have unintended consequences.’ Indeed, academic performance is not always measurable; that was the problem that arose from the Maagdenhuis occupiers and the discussion surrounding the so-called ‘returns mentality’ .
‘Long-term performance is rewarded less and less. It’s more about performance agreements, and along with that comes perverse incentives. You have to be able to demonstrate on paper what you have concretely achieved, despite the fact that it’s important in an academic environment to offer the peace of mind and the ability to come together informally without expecting concrete results to come directly from it. Things like having a horizon-broadening conversation over a cup of coffee with a colleague are becoming rarer: now, everything needs to be done yesterday, and if you want a cup of coffee, you do it at your desk.’
Busy, busy, busy
While few RUG employees would be likely to describe themselves as bored, that fact became abundantly clear when the writer of this article began searching for people to interview. The fact that this article came to be is not unironic, shall we say, seeing as basically everybody was too busy to talk. Here is a small sample of their responses:
‘I don’t think that it’s possible to make an appointment, his agenda is very full at the moment.’
‘I have to go, I have a deadline.’
‘Their agendas are really overbooked, so a meeting in the near future will be difficult.’
‘I am very busy at the moment, so this won’t work.’
‘Would you please send me your questions via email? It’s very busy in this department, my colleague is on vacation and regrettably, this simply isn’t a priority.’
‘I can’t say anything about that, and I have a reason for that: I am very, very busy.’
‘It may sound lame, but I don’t have any time in the coming two weeks in my agenda for a meeting. It’s insanely busy!’
‘Do I have time? Well… work pressure, right?’
‘It depends on how long it would take, because it’s terribly busy here.’
What’s more, research work is often buried under an avalanche of teaching pressures. Lectures must be given, and students – whose numbers only continue to swell – expect their exam grades.
University lecturer Frans Jeanette den Toonder says, ‘I am doing interesting research into migrant literature, but when do you have time for it? Teaching is what takes priority, but good teaching benefits from good research. Looking deeply into things belongs in education.’
Furthermore, temporary contracts can also impact how people experience work pressure. Universities need to have a ‘flexible shell’ of temporary staff in order to cope with fluctuating student numbers. Albers says, ‘But I have the impression that the university continues to demand the maximum amount of flexibility that they can by law.’ That maximum is set by the collective employment agreement at 22 per cent for professors, university instructors, university teachers and teachers. Tenure trackers are not included. The RUG is currently at 28 per cent for those functions, but not counting tenure trackers, the university stands at 18.3 per cent. The total including PhDs is 42 per cent.
The uncertainty can cause pressure, according to a teacher in the arts faculty: ‘I am aware that it’s a temporary job.’ He thinks that there is something to be gained in offering more permanent stability. ‘One of the biggest issues is that non-Phd graduates have little chance of getting a permanent contract, even though they do very useful work.’ An instructor in the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences says, ‘Another problem is that if people work here for a longer period of time and their contract isn’t extended, that means extra work and pressure on the remaining colleagues.’
It also often takes a while to bring a new employee up-to-speed. ‘You lose a lot of expertise and experience which has been built up by employees with temporary contracts over the years’, according to one lecturer.
Are so many temporary positions really necessary? ‘That’s a legitimate questions,’ Rita Landeweerd, portfolio holder for resources in the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences. ‘The board has yet to articulate a formal position. There are financial obligations connected to permanent positions that we are not always sure we will be able to fulfil.’ While student numbers seemed temporarily to be slowing, growth has persisted for several years. ‘You can certainly be somewhat critical about how large much wiggle room is really necessary.’
‘In any event, what we don’t want is for people to accept strange payroll constructions’, HR director Marion Stolp emphasises.
‘It would help if the universities had more money’, Albers says. ‘Researchers themselves now have to do a lot of tasks that used to be done by the support staff. It used to be that one person would make a summary of all course evaluations, but that function no longer exists. As a result, researchers either have to look at 400 student evaluations or only start working on their actual job in the evening.’ According to Jansen, the number of support staff has undeniably decreased since 2005. But on the other hand, ‘some new positions have been added. There are fewer secretaries, but due to digitisation, there is also less secretarial work. Meanwhile, we now need more web editors’.
Arts dean Wakker says that she is acutely aware of the work pressure situation. ‘But at the moment, we can’t do much about it. We have to wait to see what the effects of the new student loan system are. If more money becomes available through that, then the university board can distribute it among the faculties and we can hire more permanent staff. Otherwise, we can let the educational institute prepare the quality assurance processes themselves so that individuals have one less thing to do.’
Dick Veldhuis, portfolio holder for resources in the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, says, ‘We are trying to put people to work in order to alleviate the administrative burden on instructors and researchers. We have cultivated expensive secretaries, because professors do it themselves.’
The Faculty of Economics and Business is seeking a solution via a collaboration culture. John de Groot, faculty portfolio holder for resources, says, ‘Through transparency, respect and collaboration within the departments and within the faculty, the workload can become more endurable. If we notice that someone is becoming overwhelmed, then we as a faculty board aren’t unwilling to speak with the management about it.’
The faculty also aims to support their employees through user-friendly buildings and investing in extra staff. Last year, 20 new full time research positions were added, as well as ten support positions.
The Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies is also recruiting more workers to lighten the load.
Operations management director for the philosophy department, Marga Hids, says, ‘No one has been hired for academic skills courses in order to relieve the instructors. We are seeking to ensure that there is a fair distribution internally of theses and courses.’
In the Faculty of Economics and Business, employees can also get a massage. RUG-wide, the healthy life style programme BALANS is available, offering mindfulness classes and focusing on the balance between work and leisure time. Landeweerd says, ‘If employees from behavioural and social sciences want a massage, the faculty will pay for half of it. We know that that won’t solve everything, but I hope that it is seen as a symbol of how seriously we take the issue of work pressure.’ The faculty also focuses on the Research and Development interviews and offers support via intervision groups, confidential advisors and short term coaching tracks.
Heinen from theology and religious studies says, ‘Enrolling everyone into yoga classes would probably be met with resistance. I think that food-for-thought meetings like the ones they have in spatial sciences, where a trainer leads a discussion about a subject such as work pressure, would be more valuable.’
‘From within the university, we encourage people to take their leave days in a timely manner and to take vacations’, HR director Stolp says. ‘An occasional day off is meant to help people get their energy back, not to be hoarded. Furthermore, we are also proposing this point to the minister in order to see how we can invest the additional income from the loan system in bringing in more help. We also want to structure work differently: do you really need to go through fifteen steps in order to get to this result? There are also training sessions, and we are making the ICT systems more user-friendly. It’s frustrating if the systems from different departments don’t communicate with each other.’
Most of the possibilities for the future seem to lie in how to better handle work pressure and organising work in a different way, because decreasing the number of tasks in this competitive world seems pretty unlikely. De Groot says, ‘I don’t think we can go back, nor should we. At Ernst & Young, I knew a manager from India who said, ‘At night, I have to turn the lights off – otherwise, people would work for 24 hours without stopping.’ In the Netherlands, we have to find a way to achieve the same results as China and India, but within normal working circumstances.’