The 2017 CLA includes the agreement that all universities present a plan for doing something about the high pressure of work experienced by staff members. Within EUR, Pieterman serves as the local representative for these CLA agreements on behalf of EUROPA  . In this capacity, he was involved in drawing up the plan in question. “Faculties are setting to work on these problems on an individual basis, but we did need to improve the exchange of information,” explains Pieterman. “The Healthy Organisation working committee needs to ensure that we keep getting input from the shop floor. Who’s doing what, and what has proven effective?”


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‘Workload has increased even more for academics’

‘Workload has increased even more for academics’

The fight against pressure of work within EUR started with this basic approach. Pieterman: “Previously, while we acknowledged the issue, we lacked a centrally organised policy to tackle it. Since 2017, pressure of work has become a regular item on the agenda in consultation meetings between the deans and the Executive Board.”

Fraught with dilemmas

EUR adopted this centralised policy just over a year ago. “We now need to determine which measures have actually worked in practice. In my experience, the university is taking this problem seriously, but it remains a complex issue that is fraught with dilemmas.”

Pieterman names an example: the distribution of education tasks (60 percent) and research tasks (40 percent) among academic staff. “One of the departmental chairs proposed spreading education tasks across four days rather than three. This would leave people with a single day per week for scientific research, but the university continues to expect its staff to spend two days a week on this activity. And academic staff members are judged on that basis.” In many cases, staff members already use their Saturday or Sunday to finish outstanding work, according to Pieterman. Of course, education is very important for the university, but researchers aren’t enthusiastic about changing the ratio. “If it becomes 80-20, you can count on researchers leaving, since it shows a lack of ambition on the university’s part. They would actually want to do more research, but often don’t have the time. And you’d have mass protests from the students if we went for less intensive education – so that isn’t the solution either.”

The problem can be seen at various universities. Through Twitter scientists from Leiden and Leuven express their concerns. Source:

Moreover, scientists are also under pressure to publish, although Pieterman for one doesn’t feel it as strongly as some: “I’m mainly interested in doing my own thing. This includes publishing articles or writing a book. But it’s different for researchers who are starting out.” To set themselves apart from the competition, these researchers are expected to show very strong ambition, with the number of published articles as a yardstick.

Work environment

Research performed by the Healthy Organisation working committee shows that EUR staff find it difficult to say when they have too much on their plate. “This is at odds with the neoliberal spirit of the times. To break out of this, we need to work to put the issue of excessive pressure of work up for discussion.” The university has appointed 18 new confidential counsellors, who are intended to contribute to this change in culture.

And senior staff members need to set an example, according to Pieterman. Although in many cases, they are unaware of any wrongdoing, noted Roelien Ritsma van Eck during a recent get-together in the Mandeville Building that dealt with pressure of work. “One thing that works for me is getting up earlier than my children during weekends to get some work done. Until someone pointed out: ‘Are you aware of what it feels like to get one of your emails at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning?’ I’ve tried to keep that in mind since.”

Battling the Hydra

“Pressure of work is like the Hydra,” said ESSB dean Victor Bekkers during the same meeting. “It’s dynamic; ever-changing. You can work hard to beat it, but new snakes keep popping up.” Since 2016, Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB) has taken a variety of measures to alleviate pressure of work and work-related stress. ESSB has taken on extra staff, subjected its division of education tasks to close scrutiny, made work of its communication programme, career policies and far more besides. Nevertheless, the most recent staff survey shows that employees once again experience more pressure of work than before. “Hydra actually gained more snakes rather than less.”

How to resolve this conundrum? So far, ESSB hasn’t been able to answer this question – even though as a social sciences faculty, it has ample expertise to fall back on. “You need to have some pressure of work at a university”, according to Bekkers. “We want to have effectively functioning teams. But when have you reached the tipping point? That’s the question we need to answer.” While Bekkers is disappointed that the new measures did not have the desired effect, he is unable to explain the further increase. Has pressure of work got worse? Or has people’s idea of a university job changed? Is science seen less as a vocation, and more as a profession? ESSB’s next staff survey will include more specific questions about pressure of work – and the answers are intended to yield new handles for possible solutions.

What to do?

According to Pieterman, the university will not be able to effectively tackle pressure of work without additional funding from the Ministry. “As far as serious extra money is concerned, I won’t be holding my breath. So far the Ministry has made it very clear during negotiations that the current Cabinet agreements leave no scope for extra spending. This paints a grim picture for the science sector.” According to Pieterman, the message of #WOinActie, the protest campaign against budget cuts and excessive pressure of work, needs to be communicated even more forcefully to government members and officials in The Hague.

“In addition, we need to determine what we are doing exactly, and why we do it that way. In other words: should we actually be doing everything we do?” Pieterman explains that in some cases, extra money isn’t used as efficiently as it could be. He’s heard stories of budgets being used for new projects or study programmes – in short: to expand the workload even further.

In his own work, Pieterman consistently tries to determine what could be done differently. Nowadays, he only uses multiple choice questions in his exams. “Ultimately, this saves you a huge amount of time – even though making an exam with multiple choice questions takes longer than one with open-ended questions.” According to Pieterman, you can write a list of open-ended questions in half a day or so. Multiple choice questions take you at least 60 hours. “But after that, I hand in the exams at Risbo , and three hours later, they’re done. Quite a difference with a team of four working day and night over a period of three weeks to check the exams. I’m not exaggerating: one of my colleagues recently told me this.”

Roel Pieterman
Image credit: Levien Willemse

Avoid burning out

As an academic, lecturer, chairman of the working committee and president of the trade union for the science sector VAWO, Pieterman has quite a bit on his plate himself. “I’m also a member of the examination board and the assessment committee. On top of which, I’m an elderly gent of 66 who has arranged a four-day working week for himself.” His own solution is to go off for a week every now and then – hardly a luxury. He does need to put in extra hours sometimes to ensure everything’s rounded off before his holiday. “I’m just back from a week off. In the preceding month and a half, I worked as much as 50 hours a week rather than my usual 32 to get everything finished in time. Fortunately, I know pretty well how far I can push myself.”