Well-being not a priority at our university? Ghent University unions jointly approach the social inspection

Submitted by ACOD UGent on wo, 04/17/2024 - 17:26

On Friday, April 5, 2024, the three UGent trade organizations ACOD, ACV and VSOA jointly went to the social inspection to file a complaint about how UGent is seriously failing to guarantee the well-being of its staff.

No money, no staff, no priority?

Implementation of annual action plans? "Lack of time and other priorities"

Like other employers, Ghent University must draw up a global prevention plan (GPP) every five years, which, based on the identified risks, includes the necessary prevention measures and priority actions to be taken in the context of prevention, protection and well-being at work. The current GPP covers the period 2023-2027. Every year, an annual action plan (JAP) is drawn up on the basis of this GPP and taking into account the current situation, which specifies the priority objectives for the following year, and determines what the available resources and methods are, and by whom the intended actions must be carried out. These annual action plans are also evaluated afterwards.

The evaluation of the annual action plan for 2023 shows that many of the planned action points were not actually implemented. Many of these points include an explanation stating that this is “due to a lack of time and other priorities”. Apparently, a number of points were also put on hold by the board until there is clarity about the reform that the same board hastily launched last year - without a vision, preparation or plan of action.

Planned recruitments of prevention advisors and occupational physicians have been put on hold indefinitely

The same cost-cutting and reform exercise was also the excuse for the board to simply not fill 2 vacancies of prevention advisor and 1 vacancy of occupational physician that were originally foreseen. While the current number of prevention advisors at UGent - with less than 8 FTE - is barely more than half of the 14 FTE that, according to UGent itself (based on calculations at the end of 2019), would be necessary for an institution of this size and complexity.

And with less than 6 FTE in the medical supervision department (including less than 3 FTE occupational physicians), it is quite a challenge to get all medical examinations scheduled within a reasonable period, let alone all other tasks and assignments in addition (see page 7, penultimate paragraph, of this report).

How cynical it is when the board indicates at the beginning of November 2023 in its first proposal for the 2024 annual action plan that the inclusion of an action point on Maternity Protection will take place "subject to the recruitment of an occupational doctor" (see page 17, No. 42 of this document). The same planned recruitment of an additional occupational doctor that was already mentioned above, and that has been blocked by the board for more than a year?

How incredible is it that this same board indicates that the university can safely do with 1 in 6 colleagues from the central administration less, if we are already unable to implement all action points regarding well-being within the planned deadlines due to a lack of time? to feed? After all, many of the points must be implemented by colleagues from, for example, Buiding and Facility Management or HR, either directly or as support for implementation by the faculties.

ACOD and the other trade unions do not agree with this method

Following management's proposal for the content of the 2024 annual action plan, ACOD, together with the other trade unions, indicated that this method is unacceptable. The proposal received an unanimous negative advice from the three trade unions.

The board proposes annual action plans of which it is sufficiently aware that they cannot be implemented with the existing staff and resources. At the same time, there is a refusal to provide the necessary staffing and resources to make faster progress on these various action points, some of which have been dragging on for many years.

The argument that savings must be made and that therefore additional resources and people cannot be deployed is a fallacy

On the one hand, there is only a selective recruitment freeze within the central administration. However, the recruitments that were provided for in the 2024 personnel policy plan show that the aforementioned positions are not a priority for the board. Not even after the allocated 6 million euros in additional resources per year that UGent has now received from the government.

In addition, it has now been established that serious questions should be raised about the multi-year budget, which was used to predict that Ghent University would have to find 30 million euros by 2028: the annual accounts for 2023 have shown that this deviates more than 75 million euros (!) in a positive way compared to of the pre-established budget for the same year. You can find more about this in this article.

What is the state of well-being at our university?

What does UGent itself say?

57.8% of the participants indicated having experienced one or more behaviours, perceived as transgressive, themselves. 72% of respondents said they had witnessed one or more forms of cross-border behaviour.

The most common burnout signals are feelings of exhaustion and mental distance from work (indicated by 16% of participants). On stress, Ghent University scores less well than the external reference group. Sleep problems and physical complaints in particular are indicated as possibly stress-related (by 25% of the participants).

These are quotes from the communication that UGent itself distributed about the results of the university-wide well-being survey that took place in 2023.

Not a very nice picture, especially when you know that these same problems were clearly evident 5 and even 10 years ago from the well-being surveys that were organized at that time. “Mutual respect” and “Stress prevention” were highlights in 2013, and led to the drawing up of a specific action plan. However, 10 years of action plans later, stress, burn out and inappropriate behavior remain a serious issue. This was also evident from, among other things, the cases on inappropriate behavior and abuse of power at Ghent University that have made it to the media in recent years, as well as the report with the results of the round table discussions with young researchers that was drawn up a year ago.

The statement in the opening lines of the Ghent University communication does not at all demonstrate an awareness of the seriousness of the situation:

Overall, the results are positive. A number of themes such as stress, burnout and transgressive behaviour emerge in the survey as themes to which we need to pay continued attention, but a number of aspects are rated more positively in this survey than in the survey five years ago.

There is no effective approach to problems

More important than this communication, which seems to come from an ivory tower, is the lack of an effective approach to the problems.

It has now been yet another year since the report of the round table discussions with young researchers. At various consultation moments, the often long-known solutions were once again proposed to management to take specific steps forward. But to date, for example, there is still no protection for researchers who expose case of abuse and of abuse of power. They are still themselves exposed to the real risk that their manager or supervisor will abuse existing procedures (e.g. regarding the progress of doctoral research) as retaliation for daring to report this misconduct.

Other issues are also not addressed, or addressed incorrectly:

  • There is no clarity about the reform of the central administration, causing much concern and a serious impact on the well-being of all colleagues involved
  • The introduction of a right to disconnect has been blocked by the board for years
  • The board refuses to have objective measurements of the workload carried out
  • ...

For the trade unions and for the countless colleagues who are victims of these circumstances, it has been more than enough: it is long overdue that an external and independent investigation should be carried out into the way in which the current management deals with well-being at Ghent University. As trade unions, we have taken the step to the social inspection services to ask for their help in this matter.