(Photo: Jackson Simmer/Unsplash)

The Netherlands Labour Authority concludes that universities have only taken ‘minimal’ action in dealing with excessive workloads and undesirable behaviour since 2020. If they do not demonstrate improvement by 2025, the Authority will start enforcement procedures. What have the universities done and not done, and what does the Netherlands Labour Authority suggest that they do now?

Stress, excessive workloads and undesirable behaviour are still the norm in academia. Universities are doing too little about this, says the Netherlands Labour Authority in its Psychosocial Workload at Dutch Universities report that was published on Tuesday 14 May.

The Authority does not name the universities, but three of them do not recognise ‘psychosocial workload’ as a risk factor. In not doing so, the Authority says that they do not comply with their legal requirements. Nine of the 14 universities have not yet finished their in-depth investigations. Most universities have also not evaluated whether their approach has worked. They mostly deal with the incidents themselves, and not with the underlying causes.

Voluntary basis

In 2020, the Netherlands Labour Authority requested the universities to make plans to tackle excessive workloads and undesirable behaviour. The Authority has now checked whether the universities have indeed taken action. It appears that very little has been done.

And where universities are acting, ‘employees are not aware and use them only to a limited extent’, states the report. Also striking is that ‘Participation in programs against undesirable behaviour is still almost always voluntary’.

Dialogue tables, taskforces, expert and steering groups are not helping

As the Authority notes, there are all sorts of ‘dialogue tables, action groups, learning tables, task forces, working groups, expert groups, steering groups, committees, and reflection groups’, but these do not seem to be helping. Some respondents in the Authority’s survey – that was filled in more than 9,100 times – talk about ‘false security’. It seems as though while the universities are doing something, in practice it means very little. The processes just ‘melt away’.


The Authority notes that many more measures are taken to deal with workload issues (113) than with undesirable behaviour (31). For the workload issues, there are things like ‘stress checks and workload monitors’, work-life balance coaches and programmes that digitise, automate or standardise activities and processes. The Authority also names reducing tasks (teaching or otherwise), reusing course material and deploying administrative support.

In terms of measures against undesirable behaviour, the Authority points out that several universities have used a theatre performance called Mindlab ‘to identify undesirable behaviour and make it open for discussion’ and arranged training sessions for employees in which they learn how to deal with undesirable behaviour. The Authority also sees that all universities have one or more confidential advisors, while this is not yet mandatory. The Authority heard from the confidential advisors at only five of the 14 universities that they have enough time and resources at their disposal.


The Authority also looked at the number of reports of undesirable behaviour and high workloads filed at the universities. They then asked the respondents in the survey that if they had experienced incidents whether they reported them. At 57%, more than half had not reported them. They gave various reasons for this: many simply did not want to report them, and others felt unsafe doing so or felt that it would be pointless doing so.

A ‘demonstrable improvement’ was only made on one issue

The Authority says that the number of official complaints that employees of universities submitted is ‘in contrast’ to the number listed in its own survey. It concludes that complaint procedures may be there, but they do not work well. This is said to be partly due to the high procedural nature of the procedures, no solutions emerge from them and post-report care is lacking.

Ideas for action

After the Authority concluded that universities were not addressing workloads and social safety in 2020, the universities were supposed to design plans to address these. One year later the Authority sent the institutions a list of 17 issues that need attention. The Authority has evaluated 16 of them and has found that a ‘demonstrable improvement’ has only been made on one issue. This relates to appointing confidential advisors and ombudsmen and making them known to employees.

Improvements must be made, says the Authority. In a ‘Handelingsperspectief’ (ideas for action), it urges the executive boards to take the lead in improving all the problems that it identified. The Authority advises the executive boards to systematically list the underlying causes of high workloads and undesirable behaviours. It also gives them six potential actions they could take.

  1. Ensure that the central HR policy is carried out and evaluated decentralised, and create alignment on and ownership of the designing and implementation of the psychosocial workload policy.
  2. In anticipation of any potential changes in financing, check whether there are any options at the institution to adjust to the fluctuating number of students.
  3. Make sure that jobs/remuneration and job activities are in line with the job profiles in the CAO (collective labour agreement). Check whether the requirements for the selection procedures and/or internal promotions are in line with job profiles.
  4. Roll this out and create a solid approach to dealing with undesirable behaviour that is transparent, clear and systematic.
  5. Look into how the informal reporting procedures can better meet the needs of employees with complaints about high workloads and undesirable behaviour. See if there are other easier but still independent and safe, and more effective ways to make the reporting system work better.
  6. Continue developing quality valuable leadership and make sure it is not optional.

The Netherlands Labour Authority is giving the universities until 2025 to make improvements so that they comply with their legal obligations. Should they not manage this, the Netherlands Labour Authority will ‘enforce it’.

Trade unions

The FNV trade union calls the findings in the Netherlands Labour Authority’s research shocking. “This cannot continue,” says Bernard Koekoek, one of its administrators. “Academia is crying out for solutions.”

The Authority has sent reports about their own university to the executive boards. FNV believes that they must make their reports public so that each university can discuss their problems. TU Delft has agreed to this.

Delta, Saskia Bonger/HOP, Bas Belleman

What did the Inspectorate of Education say about TU Delft again?

The Inspectorate of Education investigated transgressive behaviour at TU Delft from December 2022 to November 2023. In the resulting report, the investigators speak of intimidation, racism, sexism, bullying, exclusion, gossiping, social insecurity due to lack of leadership and a culture of fear, among other things. For instance, employees are said to be afraid to voice their opinions and hold each other accountable for behaviour.

The effects among TU Delft employees who have reported to the inspection are often long-lasting and hampering. The inspectorate speaks of psychological and physical health complaints, absence from work and a general feeling of insecurity. Stress, burnout, depression and PTSD, crying and tense home situations also occur, as do illness, vomiting at work, panic attacks and heart palpitations.

The inspectorate reports that TU Delft’s university administration has a lot of information regarding what is happening in terms of social safety, but that they ‘omit to add everything up so as to create a complete picture’. ‘The management’ also ‘does not adequately manage in terms of appropriate measures’. The Inspectorate believes that this is mismanagement.

Read the news and background articles on the Inspectorate’s report in our dossier.

Editor in chief Saskia Bonger

Do you have a question or comment about this article?


Comments are closed.