Educate yourself about the root causes of work pressure

There is much to do about work pressure increase in academia, including TU Delft. In this series, post-doc researher Ali Haseltalab will dive into the root causes.

(Photo: Marcel Krijger)

“Those who devote their lives to earning a living are incapable of living a human existence.”

                                                                                                                                            Herbert Marcuse

There has been increasing discussion about work pressure in academia over the last few years as occupational stress and the number of burnouts increase. Around two thirds of TU Delft employees believe their workload is too high. The number of students feeling study stress is rising as job insecurity and competition are growing. At TU Delft, there have been several programmes and discussions regarding increasing work pressure, including several articles published in Delta as well as on-campus debates about this issue.

However, almost none of these ‘events’ triggered a discussion or explanation about the root causes of increasing work pressure in academia. In many cases, individuals were blamed and solutions for dealing with burnout were provided at individual level. Or in some cases, the need for cooperation between university staff, students, and the governing body was raised without posing the primary question: what are the root causes of increasing work pressure in academia? 

It might come as a surprise to some of us, but the problem of increasing work pressure in academia is being examined by several contemporary philosophers and scientists. Several articles, papers and book chapters are being published about this issue. In this series, I will refer to some of these works while I review the main causes of the increasing work pressure. I argue the case that to deal with this issue, awareness about root causes is essential at individual and collective levels.

‘The system is equating quality with quantity’

The problem has been studied in several countries by many academics, but the fact is that the causes of the work pressure and occupational stress are shared across the board. Most of the research is from the UK whose academics are regarded as being under tremendous work pressure [Pereira, 2016], [Gill, 2010]. Researchers at Tallinn University of Technology in Estonia have interviewed more than 100 academic staff at their university to determine the sources of occupational stress in a technical university [Teichmann and Juri Ilvest, 2010].

They divide the sources into three categories:

  1. individual sources such as work-life balance;
  2. organisational sources which are intrinsic to the type of job and the university atmosphere;
  3. the sources outside the university which are mainly connected to academic community dynamics.

They concluded that increasing demands being placed on staff is the main cause of escalating occupational stress.

Harsh regime

These days, academia operates under a tracking system that can be called ‘quantified control’ [Burrows, 2012]. The quantified control system judges quality by making almost every activity measurable. By using statistics on the number of papers and citations, number and amount of grants, H-index, the number of students and so on, the system derives quality from numbers. It is equating quality with quantity. It eventually builds a data assemblage to measure the performance of academics. The measurement system is structured using extremely complex methodologies of metrification, ranking, and quantification. However, in the wake of extreme market-oriented policies in academia [Busch, 2014], [Collini, 2017], this led to the establishment of a harsh regime that tries to get the most out of students and academics [Burrows, 2012].

Another driving force which drives academics to produce as much as possible started during the universities’ character-shift in the 1980s. This character-shift entailed the concept of academic activity being redefined and replaced by ‘work which must aim to achieve the highest possible levels of productivity and profitability’ [Pereira, 2016]. Dutch academics Rosemarie Buikema and Iris van der Tuin of Utrecht University write about the effect this has had on academia and the plight of academics. ‘… both the competitive mode that tenured staff are entrained in and the flexibility that is asked of the non-tenured are predicated on a running-after-the-money that is mind-boggling.’ They then ask ‘To what extent are we the critical researchers we think we are? To what extent has criticality become a false essentialism, an identity that we live by but do not actually perform?’ [Buikema and Van der Tuin, 2013]

In the next article, by explaining the effects of quantified control and market-oriented policies on academics and students, scholarly work, and academic labour conditions, I argue that the problem of increasing work pressure in academia should be addressed collectively.

Ali Haseltalab

Ali Haseltalab was a PhD student at 3mE, researching on Control for Autonomous Electric Ships and expects to defend his thesis in September. He is now a Post-Doc researcher in the department of Maritime and Transport Technology. He and his colleagues intend to create control approaches for enabling fuel efficient and/or emission free autonomous shipping. Haseltalab did his bachelors at the University of Tabriz in Iran, and his masters at Bogazici University in Turkey.


  • Teichmann, Mare & Jüri Ilvest, Jr. (2010). Sources of occupational stress in technical university academics. 448-453.
  • Buikema, R., & van der Tuin, I. (2013). Doing the document: Gender studies at the corporatized university in Europe. European Journal of Women’s Studies, 20(3), 309–316.
  • Gill, R. (2016). Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia. Feministische Studien, 34(1), pp. 39-55.
  • Maria do Mar Pereira (2016), Struggling within and beyond the Performative University: Articulating activism and work in an “academia without walls”, Women’s Studies International Forum, Volume 54, Pages 100-110.
  • Burrows, R. (2012). Living with the H-Index? Metric Assemblages in the Contemporary Academy. The Sociological Review, 60(2), 355–372.
  • Busch, L. (2014), Knowledge for sale: the neoliberal takeover of higher education, the MIT press, Boston.
  • Collini, S. (2017), Speaking of universities, Verso, London.

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