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Pressure of work and work-related stress

Last updated on 7 November 2023
The term ‘pressure of work’ is used when a person’s work becomes structurally imbalanced in relation to what the person is able to do. Are you experiencing long-term pressure of work and is it leading to work-related stress? You will find more information and resources here.

Pressure of work is not the same as simply ‘being busy’ at or with your work. Everyone is busy at one time or another and that in itself is not necessarily a problem. The term ‘pressure of work’ is used to when an imbalance has arisen between what your work requires of you (amount, type of work and duties, working hours, lack of clarity, etc.) and what you personally are capable of (the workload you can bear, your ability to modify your work situation, etc.) It is a form of work-related psychosocial stress. 

Tackling the pressure of work should be aimed at restoring that balance. An example of this could be allowing an employee who has just been through an intensive period of work sufficient scope to carry out less onerous work (recovery). In that sense, you could compare it to a physical workload, in the form of intensive training. Here, too, a ‘healthy’ balance between achievement and recovery is needed in order to prevent overloading and injuries. 

If the pressure of work is too high and stays that way, it can lead to various health ailments, such as fatigue or stress, which could even result in absenteeism.  

There are a range of factors that can play a role in relation to pressure of work, including: 

  • The amount and the nature of the work 
  • Having (or not having) sufficient scope to structure your own work according to your needs 
  • Clarity (or lack of clarity) regarding duties, objectives, and responsibilities 
  • Interruptions (planned or otherwise) and disruptions to the ‘flow’ of the work 
  • The match (or mismatch) between an employee’s skills and the requirements of their position 
  • Fulfilment, appreciation, and recognition, or the lack thereof 
  • The relationship with colleagues and supervisors, the ‘working culture’ in the team 
  • Inappropriate behaviour, such as harassment, bullying, or discrimination 
  • Personality features, such as perfectionism 
  • The employee’s home situation 

Because these factors will differ from case to case and from person to person, it is not always possible to apply standard solutions to the problems associated with the pressure of work. A customised approach will always be needed when looking for solutions in each work context. It is therefore important that employees and supervisors discuss the pressure of work together, either on a one-to-one basis (during the annual interviews, for example) or in a group. 

This involves giving various tips on reducing the pressure of work, according to each individual’s own abilities. It is quite possible that this will not by any means resolve every problem associated with the pressure of work. For example, each unit is expected to focus on the causes of and their approach to the pressure of work (at departmental, faculty or service department level) that are not (or only to a lesser degree) influenced by individual factors. It is not a question of one or the other – pressure of work will have to be tackled at every possible level. 

General tips and information

  • General tips on easing the pressure of work

    Provide a good workplace  

    Choose a workplace that is appropriate to the type of work you are going to do and of course take into account the needs of your colleagues. Workplaces that require concentration should be quiet, meetings should be held in actual meeting rooms, etc. It is not necessarily the case that everything you do during the day should be carried out from one and same workplace. 

    If you are working from home, too, your workplace should be set up properly. VU Amsterdam has various ways of assisting with the provision of effective home workplaces, including the lending of office chairs and reimbursement of ergonomic desks. You can find an overview of all the available options here. For all technical and IT-related problems, you can contact our IT department via the IT Service Portal

    You can find more tips on healthy ways to work from home here. 

    Take enough breaks 

    Give yourself enough time to take exercise and to eat and drink unhurriedly, and to take short breaks away from your computer screen. This is particularly important if you are busy, as otherwise you will end up in a vicious circle. Such moments of rest are essential to be able to continue to work productively. For example, schedule half an hour for lunch every day, and block out these times in your diary. Leave your computer during lunch, so that you are not tempted to check your emails, no matter how fleetingly. 

    You are the only one who can organise your breaks – those emails will continue to come in regardless. Skipping your breaks and just working through them will be of no help in the long run; this will not clear any backlogs. If you find it difficult to schedule your breaks and to stick to them, you can also use break reminder software. 

    If you have many meetings, adjust the format 

    Schedule meetings for 45 or 50 minutes, rather than for an hour. See how to programme this automatically in Outlook (only available in Dutch). 

    This is often sufficient to go through the subject matter of the meeting, which gives everyone present (including yourself) the opportunity to add short breaks between successive meetings. In other words, schedule as few consecutive meetings as possible.  

    If it is a one-to-one meeting, then try as much as possible to hold it away from your computer screens, by going for a walk together or by talking on the telephone.  

    Change your email habits 

    Email has the tendency to take over everything. It is often quicker to call in on or phone a colleague, and this has the added benefit of not leading to a long series of messages going back and forth. This is especially true if the subject in hand is complex or sensitive. Keep your emails short and concise, and limited in number, wherever possible. 

    Consider carefully whether to click on ‘CC’ or ‘Reply to all’. Not everyone needs to be CC’d in on your brilliant responses. Leave any questions that are asked to those who are in a position to answer them. But if you happen to know who should be dealing with a question, it is obviously helpful to the person asking it – in terms of their own pressure of work – if you are able to tell them that you are not able to give the answer. 

    Check and reply to your emails at fixed times, if possible (at the start and/or end of your working day, for example). This gives peace of mind. 

    Schedule social contact moments 

    Hybrid working means you see your colleagues less often. Spontaneous and informal chats around the coffee machine are less frequent, which can weaken important social cohesion. You should therefore make an effort to create more informal contact, by checking in with your team every Monday morning, for example. Keep work-related and social meetings separate; you should make a conscious effort to plan the latter. 

  • Tips on healthy ways to work from home

    TNO has the following tips on healthy ways to work from home. Some of these tips are shared below. 

    Draw up a daily schedule 

    • Plan time blocks in which to work, to relax, to carry out care tasks, and to exercise. 
    • Share your schedule with colleagues (via your diary, for example). 
    • Discuss the distribution of work activities with your colleagues, so that everyone knows what to expect and when. 
    • Schedule coffee and lunch breaks and leave your workplace when taking them. 

    Make sure your day includes enough variety and scope for exercise 

    • Take regular breaks away from your computer screen. Variety is even more important for those working six hours or more at a computer screen. Take plenty of short breaks (even 20 seconds helps – slightly longer is better still). Stand up to get a drink, to stretch your legs, or have a chat with someone. You could also do a few exercises. Try out exercises in an app. 
    • Do you find it difficult to take regular breaks? Install software to remind you. 
    • Change your posture. Just to change your posture, sit on a stool for half an hour or spend an hour working on your laptop in an armchair. 
    • Alternate difficult and easy tasks. 
    • Go for a walk during longer breaks, such as your lunch break. If it’s raining, you could simply walk around the building, or even go up and down the stairs. 

    Plan your moments of relaxation 

    • Stop working at a given time and switch off your computer, so that you can detach yourself completely from your work. 
    • Restrict the amount of time you spend at your computer when not at work. Although your phone and social media are now important means of communication, it is a good idea to disengage from them completely for a while. Switch your phone off, or put it on silent and leave it to one side. You should certainly do this anyway half an hour before going to bed. 
    • Try using an app for relaxation exercises. 
  • Tips for employees

    Pressure of work due to too much work 

    We encourage employees to discuss reducing their pressure of work (temporarily or otherwise) with their supervisors. What is and is not feasible? The answers will differ from one person to the next. Perhaps an activity can be halted, postponed, or taken on by a colleague who is less busy. Or it may be possible for a new initiative to be resumed at a later time. It could be about minor aspects, but also major ones. 

    Together, agree on what is not necessary. It is important to be as specific as possible. It could involve several minor steps in order to reach your objective. It may be a cliché, but every little helps. The very realisation that not everything has to be completed can often help relieve pressure.  

    Pressure of work due to a lack of clarity regarding duties, objectives, and responsibilities 

    Duties about which you wonder whether they are part of your position, assignments that are not clear or appear to be pointless, or for which you do not have the right resources or sufficient mandate – these are classic causes of pressure of work. First of all, it is important to be honest towards yourself, and to acknowledge the fact. Don’t be too proud or stubborn to ask for help. Even the smartest people don’t know everything. 

    So discuss things with your supervisor, and ask what the desired results of your activities should be. Do this until you both are 100% clear. If necessary, attach priorities together to the objectives you are seeking to achieve. If you don’t have the right knowledge or resources to bring the assignment to a successful conclusion, say so. Otherwise, you will only be postponing an inevitable disappointment. If necessary, ask your supervisor to read this text. Feedback is also useful for letting your supervisor know what is going well and what needs to be altered or improved. 

    If there is inappropriate conduct, a complaint, or a problem 

    Have you been confronted with forms of inappropriate conduct (bullying, sexual or other forms of harassment, discrimination, aggression) or do you feel otherwise unsafe? This affects your enjoyment of your work, how well you perform, and can cause stress, so don’t keep it to yourself. There are various confidential counsellors at the university to help you deal with inappropriate conduct, complaints, problems, or moral dilemmas. You can find a list of all the university and faculty confidential counsellors here. Do not hesitate to contact the relevant contact persons. They are there to support you and to provide a safe working climate. 

    I would like to get more enjoyment from my work What can I do? 

    As a rule, there should be more ‘energy givers’ than ‘energy takers’ when it comes to enjoying work. Work should produce more energy than it costs. Take a look at which of your working activities give you energy and which actually cost you energy. Do not discuss only your priorities with your supervisor, but also the energy givers and takers. Perhaps there are aspects of your work that you dislike, but which one of your colleagues enjoys doing. And vice versa. 

    It is often the case that activities for which you have a talent are a source of enjoyment. Other colleagues may have different talents and preferences. Discuss with your supervisor whether you could swap certain tasks with your colleagues. There will obviously always be working activities that cannot be changed directly, such as certain administrative or other procedures or university-wide rules. It is better in such cases to accept your lack of influence – doing so will at least slightly ease your negative feelings towards these tasks. This is one aspect of letting go of your emotions, such as irritation, anger, or distress.        

    It may be possible to find the right work-life balance by considering different working hours, for example, or by having more options to control things. The latter relates to the degree to which you can structure or organise your work yourself. For example, try hybrid working. Discuss various options with your supervisor and look together for a workable situation.  

    You should also use the facilities offered by VU Amsterdam for relaxation, sport, culture, etc. in order to add to your reserves of energy. In addition, there is the university’s LMS you can use to take part in various Goodhabitz training activities, free of charge. Examples include improving your breathing and how to deal with conflicts.

  • Tips for supervisors

    Make sure your own work-life balance is healthy 

    It is only when your own balance is in order that you can focus on your team. You too are an employee and it is important to be aware of the relationship between sources of energy and stressors in your own work. If necessary, identify them and take measures. 

    Set time aside for focusing on your team members and make sure that pressure of work is a regular topic of discussion. You have an exemplary role to fulfil in this regard. If you yourself are feeling stressed because of the pressure of your work, that also affects the team that you are in charge of. 

    Be aware of your own leadership style – a coaching and facilitating style is seemingly the most effective when managing professionals. 

    Meet the three basic needs of employees 

    Professor Willem van Rhenen is an expert in the area of job satisfaction. He says: “Look at what drives employees and make sure you meet their basic needs. There are three of them: People want their competencies to be used, they want to be autonomous, and they want to feel connected.” 

    • Investing in competencies means looking for people’s talents, so that you can allow them to flourish. 
    • You can meet the need for autonomy by checking up on people less and relying more on their strength and their intrinsic motivation, by giving them control of their work and the feeling that they can influence their own agenda. 
    • You can meet the need for connection by encouraging collaboration, giving sincere compliments, and showing appreciation. 

    Enter into discussions 

    At an individual level, it is important to enter into discussions with employees - about their work-life balance, their needs and options in relation to the execution and priorities of their duties. What is needed, what is not, what gives you energy, and what can be done more efficiently? And about the needs and opportunities for support from the university. 

    Be aware that communication (including non-verbal communication) can be a significant factor in relation to stress at work. It may be that your communication style is not appropriate without you realising it. Having discussions (more often than previously) about the pressure of work – as experienced by the employee and the supervisor alike – can help reduce that pressure. Mutual understanding will certainly help here. Ask your employees for feedback, to find out whether your messages are getting across as you intend.     

    Be prepared to go out on a limb. Keep the dialogue open and avoid one-way traffic in communications. You don’t have to know everything just because you’re a supervisor, or have a solution to every problem. It is important to discuss any problems together with employees and to address them jointly. 

    Be alert to organisational aspects in relation to the pressure of work 

    Signals you receive about the pressure of work or work-related stress may appear at different levels. If any such signals pertain to more than an individual employee or the team, it may be that the causes are to be found at a different level. This could include such aspects as manpower (FTEs), how the work is organised in the faculty, bottlenecks in the schedule in relation to the teaching load, or coordination with other stakeholders. Discuss these matters in the arena where they are relevant and try to protect your own team as much as possible. 

    And, very importantly: Don’t shoot the messenger! Employees who bring problems to your attention are an essential part of the solution. They are not the problem. 

    Be open and honest towards employees 

    Good managers have a relationship of trust with their team. But this trust runs both ways. You should therefore involve team members with difficult decisions and problems in a project. By keeping people involved and up to date, you can count on more understanding and an extra degree of effort while you jointly work on a solution. 

    Needless to say: trust is not the same as always wanting to be everyone’s friend. As a supervisor, it is your role to take final responsibility and to act decisively where necessary. Employees expect this of you. 

    Set a good example 

    • Set a good example by, for example, not sending emails in the evening, by not scheduling long meetings, by keeping a clear view of schedules and the amount of work, etc. 
    • Be open to your team members and listen to whatever is on their minds. Take seriously what they say and look together for solutions available within the possibilities that exist. 
    • Regularly show your face ‘on the shopfloor’, plan moments when employees can drop in and see you, and make sure the threshold for discussing matters is kept low. 
    • Aim to have a facilitating and coaching style of leadership. 
    • Make sure, too, that the social aspect of work is not overlooked, so that employees feel connected with one another and with the work. This could take the form of a joint lunch, visits to a conference, collaboration, presentations of their own research, etc. 
    • Include the pressure of work as a fixed agenda item during meetings. This will help you keep tabs on any issues as they arise.  
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