Two psychologists on a date with the Rector
Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker will retire on 8 February. If there’s one theme running through his career, it’s the links between the University and society. In this series of pre-retirement discussions, Stolker will talk one last time to people from within and without the University. In this edition two psychologists: Helen Pluut (a researcher at Leiden Law School) and Teunis Rebel (a psychologist at HSK Groep) on employee workload and stress.
One is at the start of the chain and the other at the end. This is what psychologists Helen Pluut and Teunis Rebel soon conclude in their conversation with Rector Carel Stolker. Pluut conducts research at the department of Business Studies into the processes in people’s everyday lives that affect (workplace) stress and wellbeing. Rebel works as operational manager and psychologist at HSK Groep. ‘Our focus lies on the common, work-related mental-health problems such as burnout. Our treatment is about not only how to get someone back to work but also how to do so for the long term so they don’t end up relapsing.’
Burnout and workload
Chronic work-related stress, burnout or depression is a growing problem in the working population. ‘World health organisation WHO called stress the health epidemic of the 21st century in 2019,’ says Pluut. Our workload and its negative effects are receiving more attention, also within the university world with initiatives such as WOinActie. Pluut deals with the topic outside of her research too: as chair of Young Academy Leiden she represents the interests of academics at the start of their careers. This is not the first time that she has discussed the employee workload with Stolker.
Work is never the only cause
This might be the first time Rebel has spoken to either of the other two, but he knows a great deal about the subject from his clinical work. ‘Burnout or absence is never due to work alone. It’s always an accumulation of factors at work, in your family, in your social life and so on,’ he explains. The treatment always involves exploring the client’s entire background, not just the situation at work. ‘I’m really enthusiastic to hear about Helen’s research into everyday processes. At the clinic, we could really use a general picture of work and stress factors. These kinds of insight are why we need academia.’
Practice takes you in new directions
But it’s not just knowledge from academia that can help the practice. ‘The opposite is also true,’ says Stolker. He gives an example from his days as a lecturer. ‘I was giving a presentation to the association for the parents of children who are in a coma, and a mother told me that her insurance had refused to pay compensation. Her daughter was in a coma, was the reasoning, so she wouldn’t be aware of her suffering.’ A bizarre case says Stolker. ‘But it was fundamental to my research in the area of medical liability. Do you have to experience the suffering yourself to be entitled to compensation? I then wrote a number of publications on the topic, which were then picked up by the legal system. This shows how the practice can take you in new directions as an academic.’
Helen Pluut’s research has shown that working from home blurs the boundaries between our work and personal lives, or rather between all the roles or duties that we have.
Working from home blurs boundaries
If you’re talking about workplace stress, the current situation is bound to crop up, now COVID-19 has forced us to work from home and many people’s working lives have drastically changed. ‘Carel, do you remember I sent you a questionnaire in the summer about working from home?’ Pluut asks. ‘The results have just been published.’
‘Wow, that was fast,’ Stolker exclaims. Pluut’s main finding is that working from home blurs the boundaries between our work and personal lives, or rather between all the different roles and duties that we take on. These blurred boundaries cause emotional exhaustion. ‘And we know that is a symptom of burnout,’ says Pluut. The results also showed that the blurred boundaries make it harder for people to stick to a healthy lifestyle. ‘When that healthy lifestyle can actually arm them against emotional exhaustion.’
Read a book rather than talk
The findings will sound familiar to many a remote worker. But in one sense Rebel finds them surprising. ‘Before the crisis, working from home was seen as stress reducing precisely because it makes it easier to combine your work and personal lives.’ That was how it was always promoted in the HR world.
Stolker adds: ‘One positive aspect is that you get a better idea of your partner’s work, for instance.’ He laughs: ‘My wife recently said that she now sees that being Rector isn’t only attending lectures, opening exhibitions and hosting inaugural lectures, but that I spend nearly the whole day in meetings. She now understands why I prefer to read a book in the evening than to do even more talking!’
What works for whom?
The crux of the matter, says Pluut, is that we don’t all respond in the same way to stress or a heavy workload. ‘I obviously measure averages in my research, but some people are faring really well in this situation. What you want to find out is what works for whom.’
Rebel adds: ‘That’s why we usually talk about people’s experience of stress: one person will experience the situation as more stressful than the other. We now have a good idea of how we can treat people effectively. But research like Helen’s gives us some ideas about possible preventive interventions.’
Pluut is all ears: ‘That would be really interesting, to conduct research together into prevention, for instance into what employers can do.’
More attention from employers
That’s a question that employers have been asking themselves much more since the outbreak of coronavirus, says Rebel. ‘Let that be a positive effect of COVID-19: that employees are aware of what they can do to improve their employees’ mental resilience.’ This development is also apparent at the University with initiatives such as Healthy University or the Student Wellbeing Weeks.
Stolker: ‘We were already a member of the Healthy Universities Network before coronavirus, but this crisis has made the importance of such support for our students and staff extra clear.’
University supports postdocs
One group that this applies to in particular is the postdocs. They have been hit extra hard by the crisis because of the phase in their careers and lives that they are in – often with (young) children and temporary contracts. In the past year, various initiatives have been started to support them, a process that has probably speeded up because of coronavirus, says Stolker. ‘As an employer we take our responsibility very seriously to help advance the careers of these young academics and we do so intensively. And not just for them; the same applies to all our students and staff.’
Now they’ve talked for an hour about their shared field of work and interest, Stolker has one last question for the two psychologists. And the meeting suddenly resembles a familiar tv show. ‘One last question: would you like to meet up again?’ says Stolker.
Rebel’s response is: ‘Shall I go first?’
They all immediately see the resemblance with First Dates and burst out laughing. Luckily the conclusion is that they definitely would like to meet up for another date, and who knows even a joint research project. Even in his last month matchmaker Carel Stolker has managed to build a new bridge between academia and society.
Text: Marieke Epping
Illustrations: Pirmin Rengers