Rector: Our WPA is comprehensive – and that puts us under an obligation

Rector Brian Bech Nielsen has noted the increase in employee well-being. But he also notes that the employees are still too stressed and the assessment of the senior management team is lukewarm, while he is surprised by the extent of the abusive tone at the university.

[Translate to English:] Selvom rektor Brian Bech Nielsen med glæde har noteret sig, at medarbejdernes trivsel er øget og færre medarbejdere er stressede, er stress-tallene stadig for høje, understreger han. Stress er derfor et af de fire indsatsområder, universitetsledelsen sammen med HSU og HAMU anbefaler, at der følges op på lokalt. Koppen med Stars and Stripes var den sidste tilbage i skabet, så den skal ikke tillægges nogen symbolværdi, understreger rektor. Foto: Lars Kruse.

While the results of the psychological WPA at Aarhus University are brand new for the majority of the employees, the rector and the rest of the senior management team, along with the Main Liaison Committee (HSU) and the Main Occupational Health and Safety Committee (HAMU), have had almost a week to scrutinise the main WPA report, which was also discussed at a joint HSU and HAMU meeting last week.

"In general, several parameters show progress compared to the last WPA. It’s always gratifying to see things move in the right direction, but then again, that is only to be expected after the last WPA, which wasn’t exactly a bed of roses, and there is still a great deal to work on," says the rector on his general reaction to the figures in the report.

Assessment of the senior management team


Psychological WPA 2015/2016


The results of the psychological workplace assessment (WPA) at AU is based on responses from 5.764 employees, which gives a 75 percent response rate.

The WPA consists of a main report and a number of subrepports.

The last psychological WPA was completed in 2012/2013. 



As well as looking at the figures for employee well-being, the rector has also taken note of employee assessment of the senior management team at the university.

"I don’t want end up sounding just as untrustworthy as politicians who claim they don’t read opinion polls. So of course I look at the figures with great interest. And I’m not going to make a secret of the fact that I was pleased to see that things had moved in a positive direction compared to the last WPA," says Brian Bech Nielsen.

To say that there was room for improvement would also be something of an understatement, as only eleven per cent of employees totally or partly agree that the senior management team is responsive to the views of employees. Thirteen per cent stated that they totally or partly agree that the senior management team clearly communicates its reasons for making decisions. This time, the respective figures have increased to 29 per cent and 34 per cent.

"But we still have plenty to think about, because these percentages aren’t sky high, so this doesn’t give rise to relax our efforts," says the rector. He underlines that the increase in the figures should be seen in light of the fact that AU is in a different situation now than it was a few years ago.

Four common focus areas

After having mulled over the figures in the main report, the senior management team have agreed on four areas that they recommend for local follow up by managers and employees. The items were discussed at the HSU and HAMU meeting where they received support, according to Bech Nielsen.

READ MORE: Rector: I find it very difficult to envisage a working week that does not vary above 37 hours in a university culture

The four points are: stress, recognition, day-to-day management and bullying and harassment, including repeated cases of abusive and derogatory tone, which was included as a question in the psychological WPA for the first time. Six per cent of the employees who have answered the WPA questionnaire – corresponding to 350 employees – state that they have been repeatedly subjected to an abusive and derogatory tone within the past 12 months. The rector is surprised by the scale of the problem. 

"It saddens me. We represent a scholarly institution with a very high level of education, and I have difficulty understanding that people are unable to behave in a cultured and educated manner. I think it’s paradoxical," says Bech Nielsen. 

Less stress – but the figures are still too high

On the other hand, the rector was pleased to note that the figures for stress among employees have decreased since the last WPA, particularly when it comes to the administration. But he emphasises that the figures are still too high.

READ MORE: Greater number of worn out and stressed employees at Arts and BSS

"Even though the number of employees experiencing severe physical symptoms of stress has fallen reasonably since the last WPA, this must be weighed against the consequences. I think anyone who has seen employees being affected by stress can see that it’s something that needs to be taken seriously. Eleven per cent is still far too many. One per cent is one too many, so this is an area that we must focus fully on."

Recognition lagging behind

The response from employees also paints a picture of a workplace where there is not much recognition or many pats on the back, especially between colleagues. Only just over half (57 per cent) answer that they always, almost always or often receive recognition for a job well done at AU. Almost three out of four (72 per cent) totally or partially agree that the management recognises the work performed by the employees.

"Making recognition part our culture is a challenge. Feeling valued is one of the things that can make you want to be at your workplace, and give you the energy you need to do your job. And you need to be valued by both colleagues and management. The latter is clearly our responsibility and we need to work on this in the management. But the employees also have a task among themselves here," says Bech Nielsen.

As to why recognition is lacking around the university, he points to the culture of individualised competition that characterises the research environments in particular.

Day-to-day management has room for improvement

There is still room for improvement when it comes to the assessment of the day-to-day management. The assessment shows that even though the employees are largely positive with regard to the day-to-day management, 18 per cent still wholly or partially disagree when asked whether the day-to-day management is visible during the working day. Nineteen per cent wholly or partially disagree that the day-to-day management can help with academic issues. And twenty per cent wholly or partially disagree that the management can help them to prioritise tasks.

"The management at the fourth level (the level below the department heads and deputy directors, ed.) is now more structured, but we haven’t reached our goal yet," says Bech Nielsen.

The rector also considers this area to be significant because day-to-day management is important in relation to ensuring a good working environment. 

Issues must be taken care of locally

 Following publication, the WPA results will now be discussed locally, among other things at dialogue meetings.

"The workplace assessment doesn’t offer a clear solution, so we need to try and understand what lies behind the figures. We can make a lot of progress through dialogue, because this is where we can discuss the factors that any poor results cover over and discuss solutions," says the rector.

The rector can, however, spot individual areas where there are obvious actions to take.

"We can see that the annual SDD (staff development dialogues) are not held everywhere. The results are an opportunity to remind everyone that they aren’t something we’ve adopted for fun. They are part and parcel of being a modern organisation. We can only move forward if the employees develop."

The senior management team will also strongly emphasise its zero-tolerance policy for bullying, harassment and gross and derogatory speech. Additional initiatives from the senior management are also a possibility. But that will be determined by the ongoing work on the WPA, emphasises the rector.

Comprehensive WPA puts us under an obligation

Bech Nielsen encourages people to use the WPA as a tool to create awareness of problems.

"I would like to say thank you to the employees who made the effort and took the time to complete the questionnaire. And let's take care of these issues, so that the next WPA also moves in the right direction. We conduct a very comprehensive WPA compared to other institutions and that puts us under an obligation."