Spotlight on wellbeing at the VUB
First of all, our deepest sympathy goes out to the entire university for the loss of Honorary Rector Caroline Pauwels. With her unwavering commitment to humanist values, she helped make the university the warm and friendly place it is today. Wellbeing for your staff members as well as your students has long been a core component of your vision and policy. How do you see this strategy evolving over the longer term?
"As soon as she took the helm in 2016, Honorary Rector Caroline Pauwels began to position the VUB as 'a friendly, open-minded learning organisation connected to the urban, international, multilingual society that is Brussels. These humanist values have been embedded in university's DNA since the ULB was founded in 1834, continuing after state reforms split us into two sister institutions.
Caroline was able to put a playful and modern spin on getting this humanist message across, including to the outside world. In the many condolence messages we received, it's clear that many people identify with these values, even people who have no connection with the university. So our policies will definitely continue to reflect them.
With a staff of more than 3,500, we are a major employer, from kitchen and maintenance staff to researchers and professors. Having held several policy-making positions, I've noticed that the majority of these people enjoy working at the VUB. Of course, like all companies, we still need to make sure we keep work manageable, look after employee wellbeing, and fairly assess and value the results our staff members deliver.
We are currently working on revising our knowledge and assessment policy, which until now has been very competitive. By removing quotas on the number of promotions available, people who qualify will no longer be in competition with their colleagues. While this might stretch out the time it takes to get a promotion, it also increases wellbeing and improves the atmosphere in the workplace. Proposals for this new promotion policy have already been drawn up, including budgetary considerations. They just need to be negotiated and approved. We hope to have them in place by the end of the academic year.
Furthermore, the COVID-19 period was quite an ordeal. We were essentially forced to go digital overnight. We managed quite well, but not without some cuts and bruises along the way. Our teaching staff suddenly had to give their lectures online, from home, with no childcare solution for their own kids. This added burden pushed some of them over the edge. I predict that after all seven COVID waves, we'll soon be experiencing a "wellbeing wave" with all kinds of health issues to address as people emerge from crisis mode and no longer feel that spike of adrenaline. And we need to start preparing for this now. For some, open and meaningful dialogue will be enough, but for others, further action will be necessary.
We also see that our student success rate - i.e. the number of courses a student passes out of the total number taken - remained fairly stable during the COVID-19 period but is now starting to drop. Students are putting less effort into studying, both compared to the COVID period and before. We see an erosion in long-term motivation, replaced by the temptations of student life. That, too, is an area we need to address."
Over the past few years, an increasing number of boundary violations have been reported in the news. The VUB has been no exception. Prevention is clearly the watchword here. Are there any plans to make changes in this area?
"Prevention is indeed very important. We need to continue to sensitise students and staff to this issue and make sure they know how and where to report any incidents. We need to make our hotline more widely known and accessible, and guide whistle-blowers throughout the entire process. Experience has shown us that good communication and guidance for whistle-blowers is extremely important. They need to know what will happen after they've reported an incident, and whether they should report it outside the university, for example in the case of a prosecutable offence. We have ombudspeople and confidential advisors. That, too, needs to become more widely known. We offer training courses so that non-victim observers of boundary violations can also sound the alarm if they see such behaviour happening. We are definitely going to strengthen this prevention policy.
Unfortunately, in a community like ours with 19,000 students and 3,500 staff members, things go wrong from time to time and then, of course, we have to be ready to take responsibility. Both the university community and society expect this of us.
In February, four working groups were created to look at our disciplinary procedures, our hotline and our communication. They also formulated recommendations regarding interpersonal relationships at work, and a great deal of work has already been done in this area. All proposals from these working groups are submitted to an external sounding board group consisting exclusively of external experts, such as psychiatrist Peter Adriaenssens, lawyer Christine Mussche, various magistrates... in short, people with experience in the field. We have already received a lot of interesting feedback and will implement these recommendations. The first changes will take effect at the start of the academic year. Other recommendations will take more time, such as changes to regulations that first have to be submitted to trade union delegations.
If all goes well, we’ll have even clearer and more accessible reporting procedures at the start of the academic year, where people are better guided and informed about all possibilities as well as the duration of some processes, because formal procedures take more time."
|||<<With income protection insurance, we're able to provide our staff members with peace of mind.>>|
Recently, the university took out income protection insurance for its more than 900 researchers. How important is this coverage to your staff members?
"Our starting point is that people don't choose to get sick, and certainly not on a long-term basis. Our 900 researchers are very much driven by their passion, their research and their curiosity. They also find it very annoying when they get sick and can't come to work. Moreover, as a researcher, it's hard to put your work on hold, especially when doing so also affects other people. They often have very specific expertise, so finding someone else to take over their duties is just not that easy. On top of that, there is pressure from those who are funding the research, through projects with external agencies, government entities, etc. As these projects have fixed deadlines, that causes a lot of stress.
We have our social security system in Belgium, which certainly provides a decent safety net, as was clearly demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Healthcare workers also have a lot on their shoulders. But with income protection insurance, we're able to provide our staff members with peace of mind. If they need to take long-term sick leave, they won't feel a pinch in their purchasing power and can take enough time off to rest and recover. They'll then come back raring to go, ready to explore new horizons in their field. Because that's what ultimately motivates researchers and is also why they're so important for society."
Peace of mind, a nice way of putting it. Does this also help attract and retain scientific researchers?
"We don't know for sure, but we certainly hope so. Why people choose our university, including international profiles, and why they stay, is a complex picture. I prefer to compare the university to an ecosystem: a lot of diversity, and there's no such thing as "one size fits all".
What we do know for sure is that autonomy in performing tasks, for both researchers and non-researchers, is very important in job satisfaction.
There is currently a real war for talent in all sectors of society. Which is why we think it's important to provide extra income protection. This way, we show people that we're by their side when life throws them a curveball, and that seems to give them the peace of mind they're looking for. For a young researcher, especially if they have a partner or children, this is important. So we think it plays a role, but we don't have hard proof that it's a determining factor."
Thanks for the positive feedback. We're delighted that the University once again chose our Income Care insurance. Does this type of plan offer unique benefits that made you want to choose AG?
"We were already familiar with AG through the income protection coverage we've set up for our administrative staff. As we're very happy with that plan, we wanted to offer even broader coverage. The assistance provided by third-party care partners for psychosocial disorders is particularly appealing. I'm already looking forward to seeing the results.
We also hope to be able to work with you in the future on the preventive side of our wellbeing policy. After all, every staff member on long-term sick leave is one too many. First and foremost, for the staff member and his/her friends and family, but of course also for the university and indirectly for society. In the end, that's what really matters. As a university, our mission is to explore new horizons and to pass on that knowledge to future generations. It's all about educating and preparing our young people for their future careers, to create a better, more sustainable world. A world based on humanist values."
Did you know that……as of this month, the Flemish Community Commission will also be providing its non-civil service staff members with Income Care insurance? “With this coverage, we’ll be enhancing the employee benefits we offer, a reflection our HR policy at the FCC that puts people first”, explained Brussels Minister Sven Gatz.