Work pressure has been high on the agenda at the University of Twente for many years, according to HR policy adviser Nicole Torka. ‘As a result, the University of Twente has organised multiple thematic months in recent years related to work pressure. In 2018, for example, the theme was leadership. We asked members of staff how support from their managers or supervisors could help to alleviate work pressure.’
In order to shed more light on causes and solutions, it was decided two years ago to conduct a new in-house study into work pressure across the organisation. The choice was made to primarily conduct quantitative research, while including a number of questions with open answers, Torka explains.
‘Once the questionnaire had been conducted among staff, early last year, I made the rounds in person in order to give a tailored presentation to each service unit and faculty, and to acquire input.’
Work pressure and work stress often involve much more than just the work, Torka emphasises. ‘There are also other matters that can have a negative influence on staff well-being, such as integrity issues, aggression or violence at work. This was a reason for Twente University to review this topic as widely as possible.’
The well-being study is based on the Job Demands-Resources model. This model describes the tension between a certain role on the one hand, and the resources or sources of energy that employees have for meeting the demands associated with this role on the other. An imbalance between task requirements and management options for these is thought to lead to an increased risk of burn-out. This model was also used in the SoFoKleS work pressure study.
By now, the University of Twente has undertaken a number of concrete actions to address work pressure and other issues with a negative impact on staff well-being. This included developing a ‘Work Pressure Indicator’ intended as an aid to managers and supervisors in recognising signs of work pressure in staff early on, while also allowing them to raise the subject. Managers and supervisors can also take a course on long-term employability and absenteeism prevention.
There is also specific attention for PhD candidates. A pilot coaching programme was conducted for this ‘well-being target group’. The university also has many sports and leisure activities available on campus for staff and students free of charge.
The University of Twente is also sharing the knowledge it acquired with other universities, Torka says. ‘For example, together with Anna Bos-Nehles, I wrote an article for Tijdschrift voor HRM [HRM Magazine] entitled (Zelf)leiderschap en werkdruk aan Nederlandse universiteiten [Leadership, self-leadership and work pressure at Dutch research universities]. In the article, we give concrete recommendations on work pressure management for managers, supervisors and staff, as well as for HR departments and the head of the organisation.’
Regardless of the crisis, a lot of the negative work pressure is a consequence of the academic system. However, Torka emphasises that the tide seems to be shifting in light of the current debate on appreciating and rewarding academics. ‘I would like to advise my own employer and other universities to actually listen to the needs and concerns of staff, wherever they find themselves in the organisational ladder. Actively seek out discussion, ask open questions and use the input as point of departure for a well-founded approach.’
‘Take, for example, all the working from home taking place. What will its ultimate consequences be on staff well-being?’
The further execution of the action plan, which was drafted in response to the well-being study, has currently been suspended due to the coronavirus crisis. The impact of the current crisis has yet to be established, according to Torka. ‘Take, for example, all the working from home taking place. What will its ultimate consequences be on staff well-being? Some people enjoy it, while others experience more stress as a result. The literal and metaphorical distance between staff and university has grown as well. Will this allow them to better reflect on their working environment? What will this mean for the way in which people view their career? And what role does virtual leadership have to play in this crisis? The situation we are in is very exciting, and very interesting too.’
The University of Twente is also participating in the Ombuds Officer Pilot of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), Torka continues. ‘Since last autumn, we have had our own independent Ombuds Officer, whom staff and students can turn to with any questions or problems. Of course, this includes work pressure and other well-being issues. The Ombuds Officer can advise and mediate – both in individual cases and regarding more collective matters – and conduct research. In addition, in the longer term, the Ombuds Officer may be able to identify structural bottlenecks. That would also help to further mitigate the negative well-being indicators wherever possible.’