The feeling of control helps supervisors keep going

University supervisor jobs present certain peculiarities that increase work strain. Some of these can be acted upon by one’s self, but societal changes are also required.

Text Marika Lehto Images iStock Translation Marko Saajanaho

The ability to influence one’s own job, contact with upper management, and the interruptions caused by knowledge work. These are only a few of the aspects influencing how supervisors at Finnish universities experience their job. The pressure can manifest as insomnia or irritation, for example.

“The stress symptoms of researchers, teachers and other professionals would decrease if they were allowed to participate in the decision-making regarding their work”, states neuroscientist Minna Huotilainen from the University of Helsinki.

Contact with upper management needs work

No joint research exists on the stress experienced by university supervisors. However, the effects of their working conditions can be inferred through other sources. Issues related to the organisation of one’s job emerge as the primary cause of stress.

According to Marja-Liisa Manka, docent of leading well-being at work at the Tampere University, the feeling of participation is one of the primary sources of well-being at work for employees and supervisors alike.

“The feeling amongst the staff is that they have no say in the university’s decision-making.”

Marja-Liisa Manka, docent of leading well-being at work, Tampere University

University work well-being surveys often indicate satisfaction with supervisory management but contact with upper management requires the most work.

“The feeling amongst the staff is that they have no say in the university’s decision-making”, Manka explains.

Empathy must have limits

Being able to make a difference in one’s own job as well as the work community improves supervisor wellbeing in all fields. The academic world has its own peculiarities, which may cause a feeling of losing control.

Numerous fixed-term employment contracts tied to projects are signed at the universities. Moving from one job to another is not as simple as it might be in retail, for example, because the continuation of each project is tied to applying for and securing funding. This is inherently random and periodic. Increased competition and changing financial instruments serve to add to the uncertainty.

Matters outside a single person’s influence are particularly stressful to supervisors. The supervisor may be employed fixed-term as well, while also having to worry about the future of their subordinates.

Matters outside a single person’s influence are particularly stressful to supervisors.

Finnish Institute of Occupational Health research professor Jari Hakanen says supporting and helping others is good for one’s own career and well-being, but within limits.

“Others are more empathetic and suffer more from worrying about the well-being of others.”

University supervisors are also stressed by the effects of knowledge work. Email and various systems with their noise alerts interrupt workdays in other fields as well, but the situation has been exacerbated in academia by budget cuts. When the management’s budget is slashed, work previously done there trickles down to the teaching and research staff.

“If you no longer have a study coordinator, the student will email the professor whose inbox may already have 500 messages to respond to”, Huotilainen elucidates.

“If you no longer have a study coordinator, the student will email the professor.”

Minna Huotilainen, neuroscientist, University of Helsinki

The fragmentation of daily work can be particularly stressful to university supervisors because their work requires focus. If there is no time for reading, writing, or research during the day, that work must be done in one’s free time.

“Getting to do things you find important can be rewarding. However, it also becomes stressful because that time could be used for recovering and everything else in life”, Hakanen says.

Constitutional stress is a societal issue

One piece of good news to university supervisors is the fact their job also includes many stress-reducing characteristics. For example, studies indicate that the opportunity to learn and create something new and work in an inspiring group benefits well-being at work.

Despite the rewarding aspects of the job, the stress factors must also be addressed on both individual and societal levels. The demand for change must be directed correctly for different sources of stress.

“For example, the constitutional stress brought on by the funding system is a societal issue, not an issue for one individual or even one university.”

University supervisor work also includes stress-reducing characteristics

Factors causing harmful work stress (% of respondents)

Factors causing stress often or constantly.

Fixed-term employment61%
Securing funding56%
Contract extension uncertainty56%
Workload44%
Career progress issues41%
Time limits/Deadlines39%
Work interruptions36%
Research32%
Lack of recognition28%
Management tasks24%
Unrealistic expectations of others23%
Lack of feedback21%
Lack of control19%
Demands of professional development19%
Teaching19%
Unclear work role17%
Lack of guidance17%
Workspace inadequacies13%
Lack of academic freedom11%
Students8%

Source: 2019 FUURT member survey. The respondents are university researchers and teachers in various phases of their careers.

Recommended articles

  • Careers outside the tenure track

    Universities want to offer clear career paths, including for those who choose something other than the tenure track path. The University of Vaasa, for example, offers two career paths and the Aalto University has two. However, sometimes you can only progress through an open application.