AU’s rector on the WPA survey results: “Status quo isn’t good enough”

In February, Aarhus University carried out a WPA survey to evaluate staff satisfaction and well-being. Eighty-six per cent responded that they were generally satisfied with their jobs. But the WPA shows no progress when it comes to stress and offensive behaviour – and something must be done about this, Rector Brian Bech Nielsen stresses.

Rector Brian Bech Nielsen is positively surprised that the Covid-19 pandemic doesn’t appear to have had a negative impact on the results of the latest WPA. But he still feels that there is work to be done, and would have liked to have seen progress in relation to stress and work-related absence: maintaining the status quo is not good enough. Photo: Roar Lava Paaske

The psychological workplace evaluation (WPA) at AU

In February, all AU staff were encouraged to participate in the psychological WPA survey, which the university is legally required to carry out every three years. Seventy-five percent of staff – 6,280 staff members – participated in the survey.

The psychological WPA survey was carried out by Rambøll on behalf of Aarhus University.

The results of the 2022 WPA at AU are in, and on a number of fronts, there has been little change relative to the last WPA in 2019: in other words, status quo. This surprises Rector Bech Nielsen. He had expected that the Covid situation, which placed extraordinary demands on staff for the better part of two years, would have had a greater negative impact on staff well-being.

But despite Covid, 86% of staff indicated that they were generally satisfied with their jobs. And despite Covid, 81% of staff indicated that they feel motivated and engaged in their work, and 85% of them saw themselves working at AU in a year’s time.

“I was expecting that the Covid nightmare of the last two years would be evident in one way or another, but I can’t see any traces of it in the figures,” Bech Nielsen said.

“The general, overall picture looks quite good, and is in line with the institutions we compare ourselves with. We don’t stick out, either positively or negatively,” the rector said, adding:

“Another positive result that stood out for me is that a large majority of our staff agree that we have a civil, respectful communication culture. I’m really pleased about that.”

Status quo isn’t good enough  

When asked whether he’s satisfied with a WPA result that can be described as status quo, the rector’s response is a firm no.

“There are a number of issues that still present challenges, and these are the familiar problems with stress, future career prospects and the balance between tasks and the time available to perform them in. I’ve highlighted these things as issues the organisation and our staff would benefit from making progress on. That’s the ambition,” he said.

One in four staff members (24%) indicated that they sometimes experience severe stress symptoms; 26% experience a lack of balance between their workloads and the time at their disposal.

Work-related absences have increased from 7 to 8 percent: 500 staff members indicated that they have been out sick due to conditions on the work place in the past year: 300 of them  indicated that overwork was the reason for their absence; for 116 of them, the problem was relationships with colleagues or their manager. The rector finds these figures disturbing.

“Going to work must not make people sick. Work is part of life, but it shouldn’t ruin our lives. And I like the fact that you’re focussing on the actual numbers, because the percentages can seem quite small. But there are people behind these percentages. And we have a responsibility here.”

Stress must be reduced

But the lack of progress in these areas doesn’t just apply to the period from 2019 to now. The figures were basically the same in the previous WPA in 2016. So this is quite a long period in which there’s been no noticeable improvement despite a variety of initiatives to reduce stress.

“That’s correct, and in relation to stress in particular it’s worse, because the figure increased from 2016 to 2019, after which we’ve maintained it at more or less the same level. Unfortunately, stress is a social evil, and our levels are completely in line with other institutions. But that can’t be an excuse; we need to work to bring this figure down,” the rector says. He also acknowledges that the measures that have been taken to combat stress still haven’t made a dent in the WPA figures.

Have you as leaders done any thinking about whether these measures need to be adjusted – or whether there’s a need for a radically new approach?

“We’re living with conditions that aren’t favorable – and this applies not only to academia, but to other sectors as well – where stress is a social evil.”

What are you referring to when you say that conditions aren’t favorable?

“We have a competitive culture, and staff are expected to bring home external funding. And we also have a high degree of self-leadership, which is also necessary when you’re doing research. But self-leadership can also lead people to work too much, and at some point they can no longer handle the pressure. There are dilemmas inherent in this problem, because by definition, self-leadership means that your manager’s role isn’t to intervene and set limits. In this connection, I think it would be useful to discuss expectations – what we expect of ourselves and our organisation.”

The rector stresses that he doesn’t believe that individual staff are responsible for stress.

“That wouldn’t be fair. Management has a responsibility; for example, to tell the staff member in question that they’re doing a good job and it would be fine to put on the brakes a bit.”

Is what’s needed a cultural shift?

““Yes. There are a lot of good things to say about our culture – after all, it helps create this wonderful place. But we have to be aware of the dilemmas in our culture I pointed to earlier.”

Changes must take place locally

The rector is reluctant to point to specific actions and interventions as a cure for the problem, because the causes of stress are complex. For this reason, he believes that the most effective solutions must address the specific challenges of the individual research and teaching programmes and units.

“In many cases, there’s a risk that initiatives imposed from above will fail to hit the mark,” he said.

Figures for offensive behavior are unchanged

The figures for offensive behaviour - including bullying, unwanted sexual attention and threats of violent behavior – are also unchanged. What’s more, the percentage of staff who indicated that they have experienced abusive, offensive or derogatory speech has increased from 9 to 10 percent, corresponding to over 600 staff members. The majority of these incidents took place in the staff member’s own unit, the survey reveals. Sixty-one percent of the staff members who have experienced abusive and derogatory speech reported that the problem has not been addressed.

“As soon as management is made aware of such cases, they must be taken extremely seriously, and the problem must be addressed immediately. Because we won’t accept this kind of thing. But at the same time, I’ve noted that staff inform their managers in under half of these cases. And you need to know that something has happened before you can address specific incidents. In addition to this, we need to continue working with our workplace culture,” the rector says, and stresses that everyone has a responsibility to speak up when incidents of this kind occur.

“We all have to take a stand.”

Have you every intervened on behalf of someone else in that way?

““Yes. Not often, fortunately, but there have been incidents, and typically it’s been in connection with language use.”

Free to express criticism?

When the rector leafed through the 2019 WPA report, one of the figures that jumped out at him was that 11% of staff didn’t agree that AU staff are free to express criticism. The figure was 6 percent in 2016. This year, it fell to 9 percent – during a time when staff and student’s freedom of expression has been a subject of debate at the university.

What’s your response to this figure?

“I’ll put it this way: Sixty-three percent of our staff believe that they are free to express criticism. And I genuinely believe that to be the case. No one should fear reprisals for being critical. Fortunately, more staff do express criticism, and I don’t believe that this is an organisation that suppresses critical viewpoints. But what’s behind the 9 percent, that I don’t know.”

Twelve percent of staff indicate that they don’t have confidence in the senior management team’s leadership of the university.

“Personally, of course I wish that we could get that figure down. And we can only do so as a management team by being open, transparent and communicating the reasons for our decisions,” the rector says.

Translated by Sarah Jennings