How can we lighten the workload?

Never finished, never done

The high workload is ‘a many-headed monster’ that every RUG employee is familiar with. Everyone agrees that the workload should be lighter, but the big question remains: how? ‘I don’t think a single, clear-cut solution exists.’
By Thereza Langeler / Animation by René Lapoutre / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

For PhD candidate Annieke Nieuwenhuis, it means eating a sandwich at her desk as she writes, rather than going to lunch with her colleagues.

For professor Dirk Jan Wolffram, it means the feeling that his work is never finished no matter how much he does, and disappointing his students no matter how much he cares about them.

For lecturer Eddo Evink, it meant working nights until he broke and had a burnout.

The high workload is a ‘many-headed monster’, says RUG medical officer Peter Flach. There is not a single RUG employee who isn’t acquainted with it one way or another. The unions and the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) acknowledge the issue: during the collective bargaining negotiations in 2016, they concluded ‘that work pressure has increased over the past few years’. In December, the University Council demanded the Board of director make more funds available to lighten the workload.

Do something, the university community is saying. But what should be done? And who should do it? And how did it get so bad in the first place?

Research in the evenings

‘When I returned to education two years ago, I thought, Ooh, the pace is high around here’, says professor Wolffram, who teaches history. Before his return he mainly did board work and barely any teaching. ‘I’ve noticed that it’s much more work than it used to be.’

The university is growing. In 2010, 27,514 students were enrolled. This year, the number is 29,748. And while in 2010 7.9 percent of students were internationals, today that number is 19.6 percent.

More students means fuller classes, more work that needs checking, more supervision. And yet the educational staff has barely grown over the course of those same eight years. ‘We keep having to do more and more’, says Evink. ‘There’s a class in French and German philosophy that I’ve been teaching to Dutch students for years. Now there are international students in my class. It may just seem like a simple change in language, but it’s a lot of work for me.’

Wolffram says the same problem plagues the arts faculty. ‘I think the volume of education has increased by 25 percent over the past ten years. There are more students, we need to teach more classes, but we have fewer FTEs.’ Teaching is taking up all of Wolffram’s time. Some blocks he doesn’t even have time for research. Or if he does, ‘it’s only in the evenings.’

The extra mile

Not all employees have such a large teaching load. In fact, PhD candidate Matthijs Linssen doesn’t teach at all. He works as a pharmacist, part of a research group at the UMCG.

‘While the group expanded its number of doctors from two to four, I remained the only pharmacist’, says Linssen. Consequently, he suddenly had to assist twice as many doctors. ‘In that situation, it’s really difficult to get your priorities straight. My research always took a back seat to my other work.’

And so his research suffered delays, in spite of the fact that Linssen was regularly working from eight in the morning until six thirty at night. He always came home exhausted and had no time for extracurricular activities. ‘It was a pretty rough deal.’

My research always took a backseat to my other work

Things are looking up now. The research group has taken on a second pharmacist, and Linssen has a lighter workload. His job description has been better defined. He mainly has his supervisor to thank for this development. ‘I think you could say he decided to protect me from myself. I didn’t actually want to take it easier.’

It seems no one is willing to do so. ‘I love my job, and I don’t mind working hard’, Wolffram emphasises. Evink: ‘It’s standard practice to work more hours than you’re getting paid for at the university. If you enjoy your job you’re happy to go the extra mile. I think the system has a tendency to abuse that willingness.’

Annieke Nieuwenhuis, doing her PhD at the law department, recognises the situation: ‘It’s part of academic culture. I have a 32-hour contract, but I work forty hours a week.’ Nieuwenhuis has even tried to work nights and weekends. ‘There’s always this voice in the back of your head saying you can do more. But it didn’t help. It just made me tired and cranky. Not the best me I could be, so to speak.’

Working through the night

Medical officer Peter Flach knows what the high workload can lead to: stressed out, overworked, and burned-out employees. Can lead to, because a high workload and work stress are not the same thing. ‘A person’s workload is too high if they can’t finish their work in the allotted time’, says Flach. ‘This doesn’t necessarily lead to stress, although people do run the risk.’

There are many factors that influence what people can handle, says Flach. ‘When you’re interested in something it’s easy to work well into the night, but administration and bureaucracy can be very frustrating. Other contributing factors are the atmosphere at work, and your supervisor. If you always get rude feedback and are treated poorly, you’re having a much worse time than if you were part of a good team.’

It’s impossible to state with any objectivity what exactly constitutes too high a workload. ‘Some people can handle more work than others. As a doctor, I would say: if you’re suffering from certain symptoms, your workload is too high. If you have trouble focusing, or if you start getting a short fuse.’ That’s when having a strong work ethic becomes dangerous. ‘There are too many people at the university who keep working even though they’re already showing signs of a burn-out.’

Eddo Evink was overworked for a while. Ever since, he’s stopped working through the night. ‘I’m a warned man. My students are working on a paper right now. One of them asked to meet with me to discuss how exactly to go about it. I don’t do stuff like that anymore.’

Beck and call

Students should also shoulder some of the blame for the high workload, says Wolffram. He and his history colleagues are working on a way to lighten their loads. This would not only include reducing unnecessary rules and cutting back on education, but also ‘adjusting the students’ expectations’. It’s a diplomatic way of telling students to occasionally leave their teachers alone.

For every hoop a student has to jump through, they ask: How do I jump through this hoop?

‘Students apparently think that their teachers should always be available and accessible for the course they teach’, says Wolffram. ‘Of course we’re available for the real issues. But not being clear on the class timetable is not a pressing issue.’

Evink feels that students are becoming more rigid because education is becoming increasingly rigid. ‘For practically every hoop they have to jump through, they ask: How do I jump through this hoop?’

When Annieke Nieuwenhuis was still teaching – she’s off the hook this year, able to fully focus on her thesis – she noticed how easily students e-mailed teachers. ‘They seem to think that teachers are available at their beck and call. I don’t think I ever e-mailed a single teacher when I was a student.’


Of course, students e-mailing their teachers aren’t the sole reason for the high workload. That also means that ‘adjusting their expectations’ is not the sole solution. ‘I don’t think a single, clear-cut solution exists, to be honest’, says Maarten Goldberg, FNV representative in the RUG’s employee organisation (LO). In this organisation, the Board of Directors and four employee organisations discuss the working conditions at the university.

‘The university has so many different departments, services, and different types of staff. We need a diversified approach to handle the issue’, says Goldberg. He is part of support and management staff himself, and finds that his colleagues’ work pressure has different causes than that of the scientific staff.

‘The library, for example, has a high turnover rate, because it relies largely on student employees. They can only be hired for maximum period of two years, which means you’re constantly training new colleagues.’ Then, there’s the secretary offices: they are impacted by the increased centralisation of processes. ‘More and more tasks that used to fall to separate departments now fall in the laps of the secretaries.’

Some things can only be improved by an increase in funds or a drastic change in organisation

During the 2016 collective bargaining negotiations, unions and universities agreed that each university and its LO should make a plan concerning the workload before 2017. The employee survey, which staff filled out in early February of this year, is part of that plan. The results of the survey should lead to action being taken.

‘Departments can make a start with that themselves.’ An example of this start is the measures the history department is working on; decreasing the intensity of education, and ‘expectation management’ for students. ‘But some things can only be improved by an increase in funds or a drastic change in organisation’, Goldberg acknowledges. And for that, they have to go to the higher-ups.

‘The Board of Directors will probably point us to the government for certain issues’, Goldberg says. They wouldn’t be entirely incorrect in this. ‘Research needs subsidisation. There’s nothing we at the RUG can do about that. But I do think there are things the Board can do something about.’

And they should take action’, Goldberg emphasises. ‘People working too many hours do bear the responsibility for that. But an organisation that perpetuates this runs the risk of burning out its people. You can’t just bury your head in the sand.’


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