Work pressure, do you know that expression?


Teachers and researchers feel obliged to spend a lot of time on things they actually find useless. According to Ruud Abma, connected to the Descartes Center, these are precisely the things that lead to work pressure.

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Work pressure, do you know that expression? Reverend Gremdaat (alter ego of Paul Haenen, a Dutch scriptwriter, actor and comedian) would most likely start ranting about ruthless managers and rude exploitation, and eventually ask: but what do you do about handling work pressure? A fair question. The devil in experiencing workload is not in the number of tasks and hours, but in power and powerlessness, or rather: in insecurity and guilt. Let me explain.

Working hard is not necessarily bad. Most people actually like it. Some even crave to go all the way. That’s all good and fine, provided it’s a job you think you can do. Of course you’ll have moments of insecurity or despair, but deep down you know you’ll manage.

However, often we have to do stuff we feel is a waste of time. Bureaucratic burdens. For example: you are responsible for teaching a group of students. Every once in a while you check if the gist of your ‘message’ comes across. As soon as you see them with eyes glazed over, you know it’s time for action, for interaction: talking and listening to them. This is the best way to guarantee the quality of your course. At least that is what you think. From a manager’s perspective, your quality management is not ‘transparent’. After all, it’s a process between you and your students. That is why you need to break down the 'learning objectives' of your course and make them explicit in a 'rubric'. This will satisfy the managers, but it’s a long stretch from helping your students. It doesn’t improve your teaching. Worse: it takes up time that you could have spent on direct interaction with your students.

Another example. You are a PhD student and have discovered that doing research is really your thing. So you want to keep doing this after having finished your PhD. Your supervisor thinks this is a good idea and says: 'If your thesis has been submitted to the Thesis Committee, you have plenty of time to write a research proposal'. You have chosen a research topic, but find out that this is not a popular subject among financiers. You start puzzling and fiddling, bending your research question in such a way that it increases your chances. That takes a lot of time and effort, and you know that the chance of being awarded is low. But you keep struggling, even during your Christmas holiday. You would rather spend all that time on the research itself, but well.

If it had been up to you, you would have proceeded differently in both cases. But you have no choice. That’s work pressure for you. It might get even worse: your boss might agree with you that working this way is actually counterproductive but still insist that you stick to the rules. Then you realize: even your boss can’t protect you. Like you, he is overpowered by the system. That is the moment when work motivation collapses into the ‘negative energy’ of work pressure.

This column was previously published on the site of de Vawo, de vakbond voor de wetenschap.

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