Wetenschap - 30 oktober 2014

Work is (too) busy

Roelof Kleis

We all have busy periods, with nights when we sleep badly or not at all. Stress is all part of the game and you mustn’t complain. Until something snaps and it is too late. Why? Is the workplace unhealthy or are we the problem?

Stress’ evokes an image of pressure and tension. Of aches and pains, trouble sleeping, worrying and low spirits. But that is unhealthy stress. Healthy stress is actually a good thing, as it keeps you alert. Occupational social worker Cor Meurs explains that stress is a normal physiological response in the body.

‘I always use the example of a bear on your path. This triggers a fight-or-flight response in our body. Adrenalin is released, our heart rate increases and the muscles tense. Once the danger has gone, we recover. But if we keep encountering new bears on the path, we end up with unhealthy stress. The body no longer recovers.’ The bear on campus is called ‘work’. Or rather: too much work and the stress it causes. During the next week, the lunch breaks on campus will be all about work-related stress. Organizer Wies Leer (head of HRM at AFSG) says the rather appropriate motto of the national Work-Related Stress Week is ‘spotting the last straw’ (that will break the camel’s back). ‘Signs are often ignored for too long. That’s also partly the culture. The Work-Related Stress Week aims to break that taboo.

’Work-related stress is a fact, as is clear from the recently published annual report by Occupational Social Work (OSW). In the past year, 8.5 per cent of the employees were clients of OSW - 492 individuals. That is a good percentage point more than the previous year. This upward trend has been continuing for the past six years. Work-related stress and burnout are the main complaints; one in three people come to OSW with these problems. But that is only the tip of the iceberg, as work-related stress is much more widespread. In the annual Employees’ Monitor, half the employees say there is too much pressure at work. So half of us are too busy. ‘That is why we should take work-related stress seriously,’ says Leer. ‘But we would really like to know more than that one answer. Is it systematic? Some people like deadlines and challenges. A project like that can be the best time you ever had and you may be incredibly proud of the result.’


It is also due to the times we live in, says Meurs. ‘Everyone is busy. It seems as if you have to be busy too in order to fit in. By which I don’t mean to trivialize work pressure; however, I don’t believe it’s the main factor causing stress. Work doesn’t make you sick. It’s the associated aspects rather than the work itself that cause stress. People aren’t in the right job, they feel pressure because they have to work billable hours, or they are unable to control their own work. Stress is an imbalance between workload and the ability to bear that load. But stress can’t simply be removed by just reducing the workload.’

According to Meurs, the solution for work-related stress lies first and foremost with the individual. ‘It always makes me smile when people ask what the organization should be doing about work-related stress. Take responsibility yourself. Choose what to drop if it really gets too much. We’re all incredibly motivated and driven and never stop.’ ‘What we do is make clients aware of their own stress signals,’ says Meurs, explaining OSW’s approach. ‘We also get them to list their own stress risks. In fact, we hold up a mirror to them. Then we encourage them to opt out of the rat race and take measures. There are four possibilities: you change yourself, you change the situation, you accept the situation or you leave. But that does not mean you have to face this alone. HRM, colleagues and managers can all help you.’ 

Meaningful work

Lenneke Vaandrager (Health and Society), an expert in work and health, gives priority to the concept of the healthy workplace. In considering how to deal with work-related stress, she draws on the notion of salutogenesis, which focuses on what makes us healthy rather than what makes us sick. ‘A healthy workplace is a place that challenges you to do your work in such a way that you feel you are able to carry it out in the right way. To do work that suits you as much as possible. To be productive in a way that is meaningful for you and which you can keep up for a long time. It is important to have the support of your colleagues and management. And to take a step back now and then. Take a good look at yourself and your surroundings. How is your relationship with your boss and your colleagues? Managers should also ask themselves whether they are being sufficiently inspiring, whether they encourage teamwork and whether staff get enough opportunity to develop.’

Is Wageningen UR one of these healthy workplaces? ‘Yes, in some respects,’ says Vaandrager. ‘To a certain degree, we can decide for ourselves what work we do. Scientists are focused on the content. Having meaningful work is really key. But there is also a huge amount of bureaucracy, and administrative systems take up loads of time and energy. Take a system like MyTravel. It’s a shame to waste so much time on that. It is all based on the idea of controlling everything, distrust instead of trust.’

Meurs is also critical about this aspect. ‘Before introducing something in the organization, you should ask what effect it will have on the workload and stress. Take the habit of cc-ing people, or all the info you have to supply management with these days. The more you trust people in an organization, the quicker things get done and so production increases. But if people distrust one another, stress increases.’


Positive energy

Jeroen Postma abandoned his Master’s in International Land and Water Management 18 months ago. Now he works as a coach and he is busy setting up his Aquarius Earth Centre as a place for meditation, yoga and coaching. He will be giving a Positive Energy workshop during the Work-Related Stress Week.

‘The workshop is based on existing courses. What happens is this: I ask you to take the problem bothering you, hold it in your hands and accept it. For example, you may feel you have to work too hard. Literally greet the problem and say this out loud. Then ask it questions. Why, for example, am I working so hard? ‘I’m really holding up a mirror. The problem in your hands subconsciously calls up an answer. There is often a subconscious feeling hiding behind the problem. By accepting the problem, you can find out why that feeling is there and where it comes from. Then you let it go. This sounds simple, but it works. By accepting it and letting go, the tension and pressure disappear, leaving room for you to take action. For example, to approach your boss and discuss the workload.’

Except during the Work-Related Stress Week, Postma gives his workshop every Monday evening at 20:00 in the Leeuwenborch.

You're never the same again

‘The moment something snapped was in a meeting. I suddenly burst into tears. The only thing I managed to say was that my garden was a mess. Gardening is my big hobby and I no longer had any time for it. At first I thought: just step outside and it will soon be over. I was sent home for a week. But that was when it really started. I sat at home on the sofa like a zombie. All I could do was cry the whole time.

I was head of the department when it happened. We were in the middle of a reorganization and I was temporarily filling in for my boss, who had left. On top of this, I’d just started a demanding home study course. A classic case. It was a bolt from the blue for my colleagues. It seems I had been good at hiding my problems. I was annoyed by the response from the people around me, friends and family. Oh, you are just a bit overworked. You’ll be back to work in a fortnight. That panicked me - the lack of understanding. The very thought of work made my hands sweat. It was a really emotional period. I completely lost my self-confidence. I didn’t even dare walk down the street, I was so afraid of all the people around me.

The main reason for my burnout was that I have too much of a sense of responsibility, which makes me want to get involved in everything. I have had two good coaches and an awful lot of discussions. They went pretty deep, about what kind of a person you are. We also discussed stuff that happened in the past. Overall, I spent six months at home. It took another three months to build up the work again slowly. But you never really get over it. In that sense, burnout is a chronic illness. You’re never the same again. I have to take care of myself. I rest more, go to bed on time and take on less work in the weekends. And if I start behaving in certain ways, my partner says something.’

(This is an anonymous account for reasons of privacy.)


His CV is impressive, he heads one of Wageningen’s biggest chair groups and he has some 50 PhD students. A working week often involves 60 to 70 hours for Willem de Vos (Microbiology), and yet he does not suffer from work-related stress. What is his secret? ‘As far as management is concerned, surround yourself with people who are better than you,’ he laughs. It also helps not to sleep much. De Vos only needs five to six hours a night. Talking fast helps too. De Vos always talks as if he does not have a second to spare. But the key elements in his approach are focus and working efficiently.

Willem 2.jpg

1 ‘Focus means having a good plan. If you have a good plan, you’ll finish more quickly. That’s what I always tell PhD students. You can work 40 hours a week and be finished in four years but if you don’t plan properly, you need 60 hours.’

2 ‘Focus also means proper preparation. You need to consider what direction to go in. If something new turns up, you have to decide if it fits in with your work. If all the arrows are pointing in the same direction, you have synergy. It’s much more difficult to keep different areas going that have nothing to do with one another.’

3 ‘Focus is time management. You must use your time wisely. American scientists work long days, but they waste a lot of time drinking coffee and dawdling. I cut short phone calls from people who want something from me if I’m not interested. That may seem rude but it saves time.’ 

4 ‘Remember the 80/20 rule. You spend 80 percent of your energy on 20 percent of your problems. Most time and energy goes on the wrong things, on hassle. How about reversing that: doing as much as possible in as little time as possible?’ 

5 ‘Set deadlines. Perfection is an asymptote, by which I mean you are never finished. That’s certainly the case for scientists. Our work is never complete. What matters is knowing when something’s good
enough. So set yourself deadlines.’

Illustratie: Ratch