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Lack of appreciation is one cause of work pressure in science


It is not just the number of overtime hours that determine the work pressure. The appreciation and support you receive are decisive as well. Your body reacts differently when the work is experienced as a challenge or a threat, according to psychologist Belle Derks who did a broad research into workload among scientists.

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On 14 December, the scientists of WOinAction will rise again. The work pressure they experience is too high. Enough is enough. But how does work pressure actually arise? Why does one teacher suffer much more from it than the other?

Psychologist Belle Derks conducted research among four thousand scientists at Dutch universities, with the exception of academic hospitals. It showed that scientists on a scale of 1 to 100 indicate that their workload is 82.8. This is even higher for women (84.6) than for men (82). With a distinction based on function, the working pressure also rises with a higher function. The professors reported the highest workload (84.6) and the university teachers the least (82.3).

Working and performance pressure
Derks was not only concerned with the level of work pressure. She also wants to see what determines how the workload is experienced and to what extent gender plays a role into this.

“We have asked scientists what they consider to be the qualities of successful researchers and how they think these fit together. We looked at two dimensions, on the one hand, properties related to individualism, competition and performance orientation and, on the other hand, qualities that have more to do with collaboration, and relations with colleagues. In our research, we saw that scientists in the Netherlands have the idea that you have to be competitive, assertive and focused on your own performance to get to the top. But if you ask scientists how they see themselves then they emphasize very different characteristics and describe themselves more as someone who can work well with others and who wants to be a good colleague. So, it seems that the average scientist in the Netherlands has the idea of ​​not being competitive and individualistic enough to be successful in science. And this focus on competition and performance contributes to the growing work pressure”

"You can find this contradiction both among female and male scientists. However, you would expect that this focus is extra disadvantageous for women, that women may experience more work pressure than men. If we look at the stereotypes that exist about men and women, it turns out that we expect competition, individualism and assertiveness from men and not from women. The image evoked by 'the successful scientist' is therefore that of a man rather than a woman. Research shows that when a profession has a very 'masculine' image, the risk of gender bias increases and we will recognize quality less in women than in men. This is, even though our research shows that male and female scientists do not differ in how competitive and performance-oriented they are."

Derks recently wrote an article on this subject with a number of co-authors in ESB, the journal for economists. In economics, but in technical disciplines as well, the number of male scientists is greater than in the humanities or social sciences. The stereotypically masculine, competitive characteristics are also found to be extra important for success there.

Belle Derks held a lecture during the WOinAction in September at the Domplein

Support and appreciation
Derks observes that work pressure is partly determined by the focus on performance. However, this is not the only thing that plays a role. Research also shows that the work pressure increases when you feel less supported, less appreciated and when you feel less at home at work. It relies on the demand resource model developed in Utrecht by the scientists Wilmar Schaufeli and Toon Taris. “A professor is rewarded for his or her commitment through status and often has more freedom to fill in the work themselves", says Derks. “That's why you see that professors persevere longer, even though they relatively work many hours.”

“For temporary researchers, the stress will increase sooner, because they are uncertain about the future and do not know when their efforts will be rewarded. In addition, their work is set out in a structure in advance more than the work of professors, which means that they cannot fill in the content of their work as they want. "

Exemplary role of executive
Reducing work pressure, however, is not the only thing an employer can do to increase motivation and reduce the chance of stress. "You have to give people resources. This can be very concrete by ensuring good facilities, but also by giving employees the opportunity to learn new things or to provide support as well. It can be done in many ways. "

According to Derks, the executive has an important task in this. They must provide the resources that give energy and motivation, so that employees feel valued and that they have room to develop. In addition, the executive has an exemplary role. “If the executive is bombarding the team with emails or WhatsApp’s throughout the weekend, it suggests that they expect employees to work on weekends as well."

Challenge or threat
Derks: “An executive will have to ensure that the work is a challenge rather than a threat. We know from research that people can see the same task as a threat or as a challenge, depending on the resources.”

Seeing work as a challenge is better. Research shows that when work has to be carried out in an uncertain environment, a physiological stress reaction can be seen in people, in which the heart rate goes up but the blood vessels simultaneously become narrower, which is physiologically a very inefficient reaction. But the same difficult task can also be seen as an exciting, interesting challenge. Physiologically, you’ll then see a more efficient reaction, in which the higher heart rate is accompanied by a widening of the blood vessels. The latter, therefore, results in less stress

You see a development in science at this point, says Derks. "The fact that more and more scientists indicate that they cannot take on anymore can be interpreted as a sign that the pressure has increased enormously and scientists no longer succeed in continuing to see their busy work as a challenge."

Need for collaboration
According to Derks, a change is visible within science. Where in the past individual output was high on the list, you now see more of a need for collaboration among younger scientists. The UU and the universities association VSNU are also increasingly placing emphasis on rewarding collaboration. This can have positive effects for the workload.

Collaborating does not mean that as a scientist you can no longer score, but that you do this in a team. You can also search for stimulating resources yourself. An example of this is discussing teaching in small groups and giving each other feedback. “For example, I have set up a writing group together with a few colleagues to get more support. It is a bit like Weight Watchers. We set new goals every two weeks and discuss our progress in order to come to a publication step by step. These are sessions that are very stimulating and therefore reduce the workload because the work is made challenging and manageable.”


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