Q&A: VUB rector on improving work-life balance in academia


Caroline Pauwels explains why her university is trying to help professors to manage their workloads better

Less stress, more time

Balancing professional commitments and personal life can be challenging for faculty members in academia. Caroline Pauwels, who’s the rector of the Free University of Brussels (VUB), explains why she recently launched an initiative aimed at improving the work-life balance of her professors.

What led to this initiative?
There were indications that academics had too high a workload, caused by publication pressure and administrative burden. In a joint initiative with the unions, VUB wanted to prepare a plan to improve the working environment. The measures are a result of research into the professors’ workload.

How do you hope to achieve this?
The university will provide counselling to our professors and introduce management practices, under the supervision of a human resources director for academic affairs. We also want to establish an email policy and to examine the work-life balance, especially for staff with young children. They seem to have the most difficulty combining the two worlds and are the most likely to work late in the evening, even in the middle of the night. All of this should lighten the professors’ workload.

The initiative is part of a general strategic plan. What does the larger plan set out to accomplish?
One of my main goals is to transform VUB into the leading point of reference for work and study. In order to become more evidence-based, we’ve introduced a human resources strategy and a policy on scientific research into the university’s own staff. One of the first research subjects was the professors’ workload and its impact on their wellbeing.

You describe wanting to make VUB a “warmer” place to work. What do you mean by that?
We are striving for a better balance between result-oriented and people-oriented working methods. Output should not be the only criterion. That is why we are pursuing a scientifically based and people-oriented staff policy for our professors. The measures that were implemented as a result of the research aim to increase our professors’ wellbeing.

Will this help foster more equality between male and female professors?
For four years now, the university has been executing a gender action plan, specifically aimed at closing the inequality gap.

Photo courtesy VUB