"We're looking at how to deal with stressors while increasing resources"

What makes someone stress out? And how do you keep employees engaged? Prof. Dr. Arnold Bakker is professor and chair of the research group Work and Organizational Psychology at the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB). His research interests include what conditions cause burnout, and what conditions make people enjoy what they do. "The EUR uses our scientific models”.

Education belongs to the Top 3 of sectors that suffer from high work pressure, is work pressure high at the EUR?

"Yes, it is. Now all the more so with the covid19 crisis. Many teachers and professors have to do work twice: hybrid teaching, live and streaming. That comes on top of the normal workload. Besides this, we know budget cuts are coming in. Universities are in dire straits. Furthermore, people have to miss their colleagues because they are all working from home.”

EUR uses your models, like the Job Demands–Resources model. Can you briefly explain this model?

"Things that contribute to stress include demands like chronic exposure to high work pressure, job insecurity, a skewed work-life balance, technostress, to name a few recent examples. Where people can derive pleasure or enthusiasm from, are resources such as social support, autonomy, feedback, appreciation and development opportunities. What our model says is that too much stressors or demands can cause burnout. But if you have a lot of resources, you can handle more stressors.”

"Stressors need to be tackled, at EUR we pay attention to that. Simultaneously: if you have a lot of resources, you can handle more stressors"

The model assumes that this task lies not only with the organization, but also with the people who work there.

"Yes, it is for example very important, especially in this corona period in which we work from home, that feedback is still given by the management. And that people continue to interact. This applies to every company. If you experience high work pressure, and the professor or manager doesn't give you any attention, there is a higher risk of work stress or burn out.

At the same time, as an employee, you can also actively look for resources. For example, by calling people or taking the initiative yourself. Our research conducted just before the summer, during the ‘intelligent lockdown’, shows that job crafting works well. That is: starting a new project yourself, looking for support or feedback. Stress can sometimes be relieved by taking matters into your own hands. Self-leadership, setting goals for yourself, rewarding yourself. Playful work design also helps: make your work more fun with humor or by introducing a competition with yourself. If I set myself the goal of processing 25 mails in an hour, it’s a competition with myself. Feedback has to come from the organization, but as an employee you can do and organize things yourself as well." 

Does the EUR have this situation well under control?

"We are facing a situation that no one has ever experienced before. With 29 co-authors from all over the world we have written a paper about this in the American Psychologist. In the event of a crisis, as an organization you first have to explain what is going on, and then indicate which way you are heading. We received e-mails from the EUR almost every day in the beginning. It is good if an organization indicates what the vision is, and which direction it will go.

In the new Approach Work pressure, that works with our models, we look at how stressors can be tackled at the source, and how resources can be increased. If you don't tackle the demands by its source, you will always end up with too high a workload."

More information

The Approach to Work Pressure is a follow-up to the project that ran from 2017 to 2019, in which facilities were set up for EUR employees who may experience stress, such as Work-life balance coaching. What we are going to do additionally is to tackle the root causes of the work pressure. We want everyone who works for Erasmus University to be able to get the best out of themselves". See the interview with Dr. Roos Schelvis about work pressure below.