Fighting Structural Overwork

Fighting Structural Overwork: A Casual Leiden discussion
Wednesday 1 April 2021

Fighting Structural Overwork_01042021.mp4
Video summary of the Zoom discussion

In May 2021, the Young Academy Leiden published the position paper "Structural changes to tackle work pressure".

Recently, the Dutch Ministry for Education, Culture and Science (OCW) received a report from PCW about the costs of education in the Netherlands. They concluded that higher education suffers from a lack of funding of 1,1 billion euros, matching the calculations by WOinActie in 2018. This structural underfinancing is felt by academics and support staff on a daily basis where expectations for the quality of research and education have not been adjusted to the financial reality. It leads to high pressure and unpaid overtime. As a result, many colleagues are struggling with exhaustion and fatigue. Burnouts are rife.

Casual staff is unequally affected by this, due to added pressure of job insecurity, and the hours going into starting a new job with new courses. These problems are exacerbated in times of pandemic.

Casual Leiden fights for more permanent contracts, more career perspective and better labour conditions for University Lecturers at Leiden University. Fighting structural overwork is vital to improving labour conditions for both casual and permanent staff.

During our Zoom discussion on Wednesday 1 April 2021, we discussed what we as university staff can do to be part of that change.

Read more about the discussion here

Join a union and join local and national action groups such as Casual Leiden or WOinActie

Marijtje Jongsma told us that structural overtime is a problem that is well known and has been extensively documented by multiple wide ranging surveys initiated by organizations such as SoFoKles and WOinActie. Results show that the main cause for workload is too many tasks. Unions managed to get into the collective labour agreement that all universities should come up with a plan to reduce work pressure, but the plans have been unsatisfactory because they often dial on some knobs such as support services and awareness without tackling structural understaffing. More funding is crucial, so join the alarm day actions for a #NormaalAcademischPeil.

The argument that academic staff works too much out of passion does not hold. Passion for work is reported average and much lower than health care workers. Focusing on “structural overtime” rather than the more elusive “work pressure” was a game changer. WOinActie and the unions filed a mass complaint at the labour inspection. But the inspection is also severely understaffed. So the follow-up is not great. Covid-19 has exacerbated overtime and reduced a safe working environment. Due to more precarious contracts, union membership is decreasing. Historically decreasing, union membership has resulted in poorer working conditions, because unions need leverage for their negotiations. So join a union, despite its technocracy, even if you are on a temporary contract!

Denormalize workaholism and set the right example by protecting your own and your colleagues’ wellbeing

Maaike Warnaar and Noa Schonmann shared suggestions for changing work culture and world ethic so as to prevent burnouts. Set clear boundaries between work and private life and force yourself to stick to them. For casual staff it is more difficult to set boundaries and say no to tasks. Therefore it is the duty of permanent staff to set the right example, without shifting tasks to more vulnerable colleagues.

Reducing tasks

* Refuse tasks that are not stipulated in the sheet with workload calculations, or at least be very picky with extra tasks.

* Limit all student communication to fixed office hours; e-mail can only be used for urgent matters that cannot wait until the office hours.

* Reduce meetings and spend meetings more efficiently.

* Use your autonomy in course design or your role in OLC to reduce feedback moments and spread grading over the semester.

Hiring and supervision

Because unhealthy overwork is often inspired by the fear to lose employment, those in positions of supervision should reward colleagues who protect their own boundaries and those in hiring committees should make a conscious effort to hire team players, not overachievers.


Suggestions to do with mindset rather than actual planning and tasks are of use to both casual and permanent staff: try not to identify with your work, create healthy emotional distance and let go of perfectionism.


Be an ally. Reach out to a colleague on a fixed term contract, or otherwise in a vulnerable position. Inquire after wellbeing and offer your knowledge and expertise in navigating the system. If someone reaches out to you, take that hand!

Inform yourself about the system in which you operate and invest in durable change

To casual staff, Noa said, “it’s not you; it is the system.” But to permanent staff, she said: “We are the system.” We have a lot of room for maneuver in how we organize our programs, our courses and our institutes. In order to change, Noa Schonmann argued, we must understand the system we work in. Informing ourselves requires an investment and is therefore a task for permanent rather than for casual staff. She argued we all take a step back to prioritize the investment of precious working hours into safeguarding the quality of research and education on the long term, instead of wasting our time on short term solution. The system is currently built on stopgap measures such as temporary replacements, working group meetings and poldermodel compromises, helping out this or that particular student.

Casual Leiden hopes to organize a follow-up meeting to stimulate the exchange of best practices and initiatives for durable change.

Preventing burnout.pdf
Preventing burnout, sheet of Maaike Warnaar's presentation
presentatie WO&O Casual Leiden.ppt.pdf
Powerpoint slides of Marijtje Jongsma's presentation
Fighting structural overwork.pdf
How to reduce time in meetings.docx.pdf
How to reduce meeting time document shared by Judith Naeff during the discussion