Under pressure: a confession
Higher education and research are under pressure in the Netherlands. This is a now rather familiar and normalized frustration in Dutch academia against which we protested in national marches earlier this year. The already existing pressures of teaching, grant writing, administrative tasks, visiting conferences and of course having to publish in preferably high-impact factor journals, seem to be amplified by those lingering fears of announced budget cuts. Cuts are targeting the social sciences in particular (e.g. Commissie van Rijn report, 2019), a field in which I work as an assistant professor of public administration.
Academic staff are suffering from these pressures and fears. Interaction among colleagues becomes more difficult due to, for example, experienced inequalities (whether they are actually there or not) between those with a permanent contract and those with a fixed one; or between junior scholars and senior scholars. Collegiality, the social fabric at any workplace, is eroded, and sometimes even replaced with misplaced yet, for me, understandable jealousy, competition and animosity.
One of the most featured outcomes of unrealistic expectations, fears and pressure is a burn-out, in particular among fixed-term and younger staff. These burnt out “early career scholars” (e.g. Salmela-Aro, Tolvanen and Nurmi, 2009) risk to remain within that early phase of their career; having to live up to simply too many expectations, but not managing to do so. They are trapped.
At universities, managerial employees should keep an eye on their staff’s (mental) health. In fact, an employee with a burn out is simply too costly for an employer, especially when this employee is permanently contracted. Those burnt out employees must be kept on their pay-rolls when recovering, plus, during that recovery, the employee is (or should be) replaced by another paid employee. So, for the sake of both the employee’s and university’s (financial) health, the employer wants to prevent burn-outs as much as possible.
Such preventative measures are put in place at universities in the Netherlands. Ranging from offering workshops on effective planning to intensive coaching by external professionals, universities make an effort to keep the burn out risk as low as possible. The scholar is seen as an individual and the prevention program customized to meet the its needs. Does that individual approach make sense though? Well, undergoing these preventative measures myself at the moment, I am not really sure.
In his 'Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions', Johann Hari argues that mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, result directly from our cultural norms, societal expectations, and the way we (are expected to) live our daily lives. This indicates that burnt out academics ought to be considered not necessarily as individual, separate cases, but rather as a structural outcome of a too demanding (even toxic) work environment and ethos that has unfortunately also integrated itself at universities. That would also indicate that the burn out (among academics) mirrors industrial accidents as is referred to in other sectors; meaning, burn outs are real, structural dangers of the job in contemporary academia.
Seen from that perspective, a customized approach to preventing individual cases of burn outs from happening should be joint by an organization-wide reflection on and tackling of the structural elements that cause burn outs. Actually, when considering the financial costs of permanently burnt out employees with a permanent contract, the university as employer executes poor, ineffective financial management by individualizing the prevention of burn outs to the level of the employee’s responsibility; it is a band-aid solution to a deeper, perpetual sickness of the academic organization that requires, in my opinion, treatment as well.
-Adviescommissie Bekostiging Hoger Onderwijs en Onderzoek (2019) Wissels Om: Naar een transparante en evenwichtige bekostiging, en meer samenwerking in hoger onderwijs en onderzoek. https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/binaries/rijksoverheid/documenten/rapporten/2019/07/19/adviesrapport-bekostiging-hoger-onderwijs/Adviesrapport+bekostiging+hoger+onderwijs+Wissels+om+digitaal+website.pdf [Date accessed 4/7/2019]
-Hari, J. (2018). Lost connections: Uncovering the real causes of depression–and the unexpected solutions. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.
-Salmela-Aro, K., Tolvanen, A., & Nurmi, J. E. (2009). Achievement strategies during university studies predict early career burnout and engagement. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 75(2), 162-172.