‘Help prevent a burnout’

After suffering a burnout, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Professor Caspar Chorus got back on track with help from TU Delft. He warns against the dangers, and appeals to TU Delft to take action.

As I made my way to the stage at the congress hotel in Washington, DC, it felt like part of my brain had been shut down. I suddenly became incredibly tired, and fumbled for words during my presentation; it was a frightening experience. I knew instinctively right away that this tiredness would last for months. I called my wife and told her that I had a burnout. It is strange how one can intuitively identify a feeling that one has never felt before the moment it arises. Despite having been bursting with energy for years, and never really having taken the concept of a burnout seriously, I knew exactly what was up when it happened.

Back on my feet

With the outstanding help of a coach, a company doctor, my colleagues and superiors – all the way up to the Rector Magnificus – I was back on my feet within six months. And four years on, I would even venture to say that I am more than back on my feet; I am primarily a lot more relaxed. My work has also not suffered as a result: although I am a little more economical with my energy and therefore a little less productive in some ways, I am also less agitated, and more creative. And my colleagues (I head the Transport and Logistics section of the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management) benefit from having a manager who is not constantly pushing the limits of everyone’s potential and energy.


Why am I telling you this? Because an acquaintance of mine, also a professor, took his life last week after a protracted burnout.

Because, during the pas several months, there have been several similar very sad incidents at Dutch universities. And because I have also witnessed the number of people suffering a serious burnout increasing at our university.

Something needs to be done.

To some extent, a burnout is an extremely personal story. I have always been open regarding several of the factors that triggered my burnout, such as unbridled ambition and zest for work, combined with perfectionism. But in this article, I would like to focus on what the university can do – in fact, needs to do – to help prevent burnouts.

We are fortunate that our Executive Board is also concerned about work pressure and how this affects staff. That is something that I have experienced personally. Not only during my own burnout, but also subsequently, such as when I was invited to give a lecture on the subject during the Key Scientists Day last summer. During that day, fifty TU Delft top researchers met with the Executive Board to discuss the future of the university. I recounted my story, which began personally and closed with recommendations for TU Delft. I summarise a selection of these recommendations below.

Competitive attitude

No matter how catchy and popular the metaphor is, science is not top-level sport. Top-level sport is about winning and losing, about people who run the same 100 metres thousands of times throughout their career and are awarded a gold medal if, at the right time, they run slightly faster than their fellow athletes. In contrast, science is about contributing knowledge and exploring new ideas. With all due respect to top-level sportspeople: this is something completely different.

Competition is an efficient and motivational concept when it comes to the distribution of scarce resources, such as subsidies or page space in a leading journal. But if we think about how the university community at large works in a wider sense, the focus needs to be on concepts other than that of winning. The question is not: ‘Are you the best in your field?’, but: ‘Do you make a meaningful contribution to your field?’

So-called rankings

Linked to this: TU Delft should stop paying attention to so-called rankings. Rankings stimulate spurious competition, as by definition, they are zero-sum games: you can only move up if someone else drops down. Add to this that science is by definition a non-zero-sum game: everyone benefits from new expertise produced by TU Delft. That includes our so-called competitors – and that is how it should be.

In addition, if you take a ranking seriously, you acquiesce to the value system of whoever compiled the ranking. For example, the Shanghai Ranking is based on Nobel Prizes and numbers of papers published in Nature and Science. They apparently think this is of the utmost importance, and that is their right. However, we are abundantly aware that much of the research produced in Delft is not manifested in such forums. With its reputation and wealth of qualities, TU Delft should never be reduced to a number in a list.

Ideally positioned

That all of these rankings do exactly that is one concern, but another is that we subsequently go on to devote attention to the matter of our own accord – whether that be on our own website or elsewhere. As a chef who was praised in the ‘World’s Best Restaurant’ competition said: ‘Playing the game is fun, but it ultimately detracts from who we are and what we do’. With its solid international standing, TU Delft is ideally positioned to act as a role model for other Dutch universities. Forget about that the ranking-nonsense, we’ve got more important things to be doing.

Competitive attitude and rankings may seem to be rather abstract concepts in an article about burnouts, but I have been working here long enough to witness how the competition virus is penetrating increasingly deeply into the customs of the organisation and its employees, and having a considerably negative impact on the researchers’ well-being.

Less is more

A slightly more practical stance: we need to do fewer things, and we need to do these things better. My colleagues have heard me uttering this mantra for years, and I am in good company: the President of our Executive Board made a case for less is more in Delta. The concept is broadly applicable. Take publication pressure, for example: it is crucial that we avoid striving for high numbers of papers (of unavoidably moderate quality and impact), but instead, that we rather produce (unavoidably lower numbers of) papers that each actually make a worthwhile academic contribution.

I regularly challenge myself and my colleagues to focus on the big questions in the field, to take risks in doing so and to invest time in enduring and meaningful research. Yes, that can result in a year with fewer or even no publications, but in our group, that does not immediately entail a negative point that comes up for discussion during the Result & Development meetings.

Focus on quality

In my experience, researchers feel less work pressure when they pursue quality than when the focus is on quantity. A major reason for this is that quality is intrinsically motivational; just try and name a researcher who is not wanting to deliver high-quality work. In contrast, most people are not especially inspired by counting the number of publications listed on their CV. The same applies to PhD-student numbers: rather a handful to whom you can offer intensive supervision and with whom you can really collaborate on research than 20 of them, who you only speak to twice a year.

Fewer meetings

‘Less is more’ also applies to meetings: I cannot name a single researcher who took a job at a university because of a particular penchant for meetings. And yet, an awful lot of meetings are held at TU Delft, dealing with the most trifling of topics. I personally decline most of the invitations I receive to meetings, and I make efforts to ensure that my colleagues are subjected to the bare minimum.

It is an uncomfortable truth that the implicit objective of the majority of meetings is to justify the position of the meeting’s organiser, and of their institution. (‘I am the Director of the institute, and that is why I call all of the involved Professors together for a meeting every few months’).

In turn, this is related to the uncontrolled growth of institutes at TU Delft: nowadays, every self-respecting Professor founds their own lab, and if all goes well, develops it into an institute or ‘initiative’ after successfully lobbying the Dean or Executive Board. The benefit of these institutes (getting researchers out of their musty attic rooms) usually does not weigh up against the associated investment of time.

From lab to institute; it is only a question of time before someone is appointed to coordinate the institute’s labs – bring on the meetings! And meetings naturally also need to be held about the institute’s website, its profile, a seed money competition, not forgetting an annual congress – as if we didn’t have enough of them already. And this all cuts into the already limited time available for genuine, substantive work – you remember: education, research, valorisation.

Be sparing with time

Looking at my surroundings, and based on my own experiences, I am convinced that the risk of burnouts can be reduced if TU Delft and its staff radically cut activities, such as founding institutes and attending meetings, which do not represent a substantial contribution to the substantive core of what we do. The rest distracts us from what it is all really about: educating students, helping science to progress and enriching society with new applications.

The competitive attitude essentially also detracts from the primary concern of motivated researchers and lecturers: we are not here to win a competition, but to build robots, forecast traffic jams, teach students statistics, you name it. A TU Delft employee is happiest working on matters of substance, in a collegial environment, and at the highest possible level. Not rushed because there are three more articles that need to be churned out, or because there’s another meeting on the horizon, but in peace and quiet, so that – with a bit of luck – they can head home on time to join their family for dinner.

The TU Delft logo features Prometheus’ fire, and rightly so: we cannot do without this fire, which brought knowledge to humankind. We therefore cannot permit this fire to burn out in so many of our colleagues, often protractedly, and occasionally – but by definition all too frequently – with disastrous consequences.

Appeal for action

I am appealing for action. I am fully aware that the points I have outlined above are not the only sources of work pressure. More money from ‘The Hague’ is always welcome. In addition, dimming the nonsensical ‘science = top-level sport’ metaphor and radically reducing matters of secondary importance such as meetings is no easy task, and will be distressing to some. But these are essential initial steps, and the time is ripe for them: the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) is working on a new collective labour agreement, and TU Delft is working on a new strategy. University staff are too precious to allow this urgent problem to remain unaddressed until the next round.

Caspar Chorus is Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Professor at the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management (TPM).

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