Medical faculty employees should speak out more, managers should be less demanding 

Exit interviews with outgoing staff to understand what needs improving and allowing a group of employees to evaluate managers: these are just some of the actions aimed at diminishing work stress and improving social safety at the Faculty of Medical Sciences.

Managers will also be obligated to participate in training where they’ll learn what to do if they ever witness harassment. Other employees are also encouraged to participate in the training. 

These actions are in response to, among other things, the report (in Dutch) concerning social safety in academia by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and the UCMG employee experience survey. These showed that work stress at the medical faculty was at an all-time high. 

Dean Marianne Joëls instigated the plan and exerted some pressure to ensure its implementation before her retirement in January. 

Intens work stress

An in-depth study of the plan by professor Joke Fleer revealed that nearly 60 percent of staff at the faculty experience high to intense work stress. Among staff in an academic function, 73 percent experience stress. This is mainly due the number of tasks they need to perform, but also the performance culture and the pressure to publish.

Additionally, 20 percent of staff said they’d experienced ‘socially unsafe’ situations, such as exclusion, verbal aggression, threat or harassment, bullying, and discrimination. 

Even if they weren’t the victim in these situations, they saw it happening around them, says Fleer. ‘That percentage is much too high considering the university has a zero-tolerance policy.’

Simplest things

Joëls: ‘It’s in the simplest things, like a supervisor telling a PhD student on Friday afternoon that they’ll  have a meeting later and they want a first draft of their article by Monday. But the PhD student has a party on the other side of country and doesn’t know how they’ll get the work done.’ 

This plan should help employees speak up when their managers ask too much of them, but it should also stop the latter from being too demanding. Most people don’t get it wrong on purpose, Fleer emphasises: they simply don’t realise what they’re doing.

‘If you want to get to the root of the issue, you have to tackle the culture, the habits, the ways in which people treat each other, and the norms and values that are implicitly taught us during our academic education’, she says. ‘It’s a monster with many heads.’

Team get-togethers

They feel everyone on a team should be made aware of the issues. That’s why the proposal includes team get-togethers involving role-playing and peer-to-peer coaching. Teams should also participate in an annual evaluation of work stress and social safety, under the supervision of an independent coach.

The measures are specifically meant not just for individual employees, Joëls says. ‘If you want to bring about a cultural change, you have to include the people at the top.’ 


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