Beeld: Arian Khoshchin, canva.com

During her academic career, Isabelle Kohler has struggled to manage high work pressure. She’s not alone, as high work pressure, stress, and emotional exhaustion are common in academia—not only among professors but also among PhD students. In her column, Isabelle calls for a shift in the academic mindset and emphasizes the need for structural changes to ensure the well-being and success of academic professionals.

One thing I hadn’t realized when I embarked on an academic career was the amount of stress and heavy workload I would have to handle. I knew I would need to work hard, and I was ready for it, but I didn’t expect things to become uncontrollable to the point where I had to seek help from the company doctor.

This period of my life was unpleasant. I felt overworked, lost, miserable, and hopeless. I no longer had the capacity to take a step back and assess how to change my situation. I felt ashamed, too —was I so weak physically and mentally that I couldn’t handle this stress? Was it my fault?

Looking around, I saw that I was certainly not alone in these struggles. Many of my colleagues had already suffered from burnout or were on the verge of it. It seemed that being overworked, experiencing constant high stress, and dealing with anxiety were considered normal.

High work pressure

A research report published in mid-May by the Dutch Labor Inspectorate on Psychosocial Workload at Universities, titled “Arbo in Bedrijf” [1], shows that a large portion of the teaching and scientific staff at Dutch universities suffers from work pressure. Indeed, 74% of academic employees experience more than occasional stress due to work pressure, while 36% report high to very high emotional exhaustion. Employees work an average of six hours per week more than stipulated in their contracts. They also report performing many more tasks beyond their job profiles—up to eight extra tasks for assistant professors 2 (so-called “universitair docent 2,” equivalent to a starting assistant professor). The reasons for such high work pressure include regulatory and accountability demands, performance pressure, ambitions, and the way research and education are funded.

Universities are aware of the work pressure and have taken measures to mitigate it. For instance, one approach is to reduce task load, with less lecturing, decreasing committee work, reusing course materials, and broadening norm hours [1]. Additionally, universities have invested in recruiting additional staff and providing more support, a structural approach that helps alleviate the workload from existing staff. Another initiative is the ‘Recognition and Rewards’ program, which aims to value and recognize diverse academic contributions beyond traditional metrics. While this program seems promising, it has mostly remained in the conversation stage without resulting in significant workplace changes [1].

PhD’s affected

These measures, aimed mainly at individuals, insufficiently address the underlying causes. Moreover, there has been only marginal improvement since the last report published in 2021. Significant action is needed because this high work pressure can lead to serious health complaints, absenteeism, and disability.

This is not exclusive to higher academic layers; it also strongly affects PhD students. A survey conducted by the PhD Network Netherlands (PNN) in 2020 on more than 1,600 PhD students showed that nearly 60% of PhD candidates experience high or too high work pressure, with nearly two-thirds working more hours than stated in their contracts [2]. Even more concerning, 39% of PhD students exhibit severe symptoms of burnout — a proportion that is even higher among scholarship recipients (44%) and international PhD students (45%). Almost half of the PhD students (42%) have considered quitting their PhD.

These numbers highlight a systemic issue in academia and indicate that the measures taken by Dutch universities are not sufficiently targeting the sources of the problems. Workshops on time management for assistant professors are beneficial, but how can we expect them to manage their time effectively when they have to handle many more tasks than initially agreed upon? Reducing task load and hiring additional staff are effective measures [1], but we need more of these and additional measures. We also need a shift in the academic mindset.

Suggestions for a healthy environment

Some may argue that the system doesn’t need to change because others find it adequate and fulfilling. However, with almost three-quarters of academics experiencing stress due to work pressure and almost half of the PhD students at risk of increased mental health issues, this perspective is flawed.

Do we want increased absenteeism due to burnout and mental health issues financially supported by taxpayers, or do we want to foster a healthy environment where talents can thrive and have the space to conduct research that positively impacts society?

It’s time to make academia a healthier environment. In addition to the suggestions already on the radar of universities, I have a few more ideas:

  • Improved task distribution, ensuring the tasks align with job profiles and do not overburden specific roles;
  • Streamlined administrative processes to reduce bureaucratic burdens. This can include adopting more efficient technology and reducing redundant paperwork;
  • More support for education duties, to ensure that academic staff are not overwhelmed by teaching responsibilities;
  • Active implementation of the recognition and rewards programs and support at all hierarchical levels;
  • Flexible work arrangements, to help staff manage their workload better;
  • Regular feedback and evaluation, where employees can voice their suggestions about work conditions, supporting continuous improvements;
  • Supportive leadership training to develop supportive leadership skills and create a positive work environment;
  • Promote a healthy work culture, where well-being, balance, rest, and mutual support are valued and encouraged.

I’m confident that if we implement these changes, academia will once again be a great place to work for everyone.


[1] Netherlands Labour Authority (Nederlandse Arbeidsinspectie), Psychosocial Workload at Dutch Universities, 14th May 2024. https://www.nlarbeidsinspectie.nl/binaries/nlarbeidsinspectie/documenten/rapporten/2024/05/14/arbo-in-bedrijf-special-psychosociale-arbeidsbelasting-universiteiten/psa-universiteiten-special-psychological-worksload-at-dutch-universities-20240514.pdf (Accessed 30-05-2024)

[2] PhD Network Netherlands (Promovendi Netwerk Nederland, PNN), PNN PhD Survey – Asking the relevant questions, August 2020. https://hetpnn.nl/en/publicatie/phd-survey-wellbeing/ (Accessed 30-05-2024)

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