The considerable increase in the number of requests for support was mainly caused by consultations on the easily accessible OpenUp online platform, which was established during the first lockdown and makes it easier for staff to get in touch with a psychologist. Ever since the platform was launched in March, 145 consultations have been provided using this new method.

Simultaneously, the number of people consulting the specially designated psychologist for PhD students and the work-life balance coaches has also risen since last year, according to monthly figures recorded by the university’s HR department. Only the consultations with company social work fell, the reason for this is not clear.

A third of employees feel slightly depressed

Roos Schelvis, a Healthy and Safe Work policy adviser at EUR, believes it is a good thing that many employees are availing themselves of the opportunities open to them. She is not surprised that the numbers have gone up. A survey performed at the start of the first lockdown showed that a third of employees were experiencing a heavier workload and feeling slightly depressed.

Lower absenteeism than year ago

What is notable is that staff sickness absence rates have decreased since March, compared to the same time last year. For instance, at the start of October 2020, approximately 2.8 percent of EUR staff were off sick, compared to 3.1 percent in the same period last year.

“The statistics tell us that sickness absence levels have been consistently lower since early April than a year ago. They have stayed like that in recent months,” said Schelvis.

Another thing that is notable is that sickness absence figures were slightly higher in early 2020, just before the coronavirus outbreak, than they were in the same period in 2019.

Schelvis believes that the decrease in sickness absence rates is partially due to the fact that staff currently do not have to commute between their homes and the university, which reduces the amount of stress they experience. “And when you work from home, it’s easier to take a quick nap if you’re not feeling great.”

At the same time, Schelvis thinks that the low sickness absence figures constitute a reason to be vigilant, because from a mental health point of view, people are experiencing increased stress at the moment, and working from home is not necessarily healthy, either. “Our employees have a more sedentary lifestyle and are getting less exercise now that they’re working from home.”

Persistent stress is a risk

Schelvis had this to say on the subject of mental health: “Prospects matter to employees, and now that it’s increasingly uncertain when life will return to normal, employees will find it harder and harder to keep working like this. We’ve been warning people that persistent stress is a risk. And they’re listening, at various levels, all the way up to the Executive Board.”

For his part, Roel Pieterman, the chairman of the EUROPA (EUR’s staff affairs committee), is also concerned about the low sickness absence figures. “However, I don’t have a scientific explanation for this trend. I do have some anecdotal evidence, though. Academic staff are sometimes given the opportunity to ‘work from home’ rather than call in sick. So we think that our actual sickness absence figures are always higher than the official figure. Now that we’ve all been told to work from home, it only makes it easier for people to do this, meaning that even fewer people are calling in sick.”