“We will never accept people being offended, bullied or harassed,” says Vice-Chancellor Anders Hagfeldt, commenting on the attention drawn in various ways to work environment issues in academia. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt.2023-03-07
Psychosocial work environment in academia a serious current issue
In December, Vice-Chancellor Anders Hagfeldt launched a number of measures addressing the University’s psychosocial work environment and he recently adopted a Staff Policy for the University. He is convinced that it is critical for the future to put these issues high on the agenda.
“Work environment issues are vital for the University’s development and must always be on our agenda. The best research and education are produced in a creative environment where ideas flourish and evolve and people thrive. If problems arise it is important to deal with them in a judicious manner,” Hagfeldt says.
Work environment issues in academia have recently drawn attention both in the media and in public seminars. The questionnaire study on gender-based vulnerability at Swedish higher education institutions that was presented in May last year was the first of its kind and highlighted the particular vulnerability of female doctoral students. The Swedish Work Environment Authority’s project report “Organisational and social work environment 2018–2022” also emphasised the situation of doctoral students as particularly associated with risk in academia. A further survey on the psychosocial work environment carried out by ST (the Union of Civil Servants) at the end of last year revealed that threats and violence occur and that victims experienced a lack of support from their employer.
Regulations and guidelines have long been in place at the University, Hagfeldt notes, so what has to be done is to step up preventive efforts and make sure the rules are followed.
“Needless to say, it’s very disheartening that there are members of staff in our organisation who suffer because of their work environment. The study published last spring was very important: we now have much better data than previously that will really help us in our preventive action and in developing our methods for combating all forms of harassment. Apart from the fact that these efforts are to everyone’s advantage, it will also make the University an even better place in the long term,” Hagfeldt says.
In the questionnaire study, one in five female doctoral students at Uppsala University stated that they had experienced bullying in the past year. What is your view on this?
“Obviously this is completely unacceptable. We clearly need to work more on these issues, and we are now doing so. Having said that, there are many fantastic and creative parts of the University and I hope we can learn from one another about successful approaches.”
Do you think the work environment could influence women’s desire to continue with an academic career?
“Yes, of course that’s possible and in that case, we will lose many talented people in the University. We have everything to gain from fighting every kind of harassment.”
You have previously stated that there is zero tolerance of sexual harassment at the University. What does this mean?
“It means we will never accept people being offended, bullied or harassed. There are regulations and laws to comply with and measures that can be deployed. It’s important to talk about the psychosocial work environment at the departments and that everyone knows where they can go if they are victimised or see someone else being victimised. There’s also a whistleblowing function that I hope everyone is aware of.”
What has been done since the major gender-based study came out in May last year?
“Firstly, we have started to analyse the results of that study in depth and to employ what we learn in our preventive action. Secondly, an action plan has been drawn up for mainstreaming the equal opportunities perspective in the University. This was a project that had already started before the report came out. It involves new support materials, a questionnaire study of our own and enhanced training for members of staff and managers. We are also looking into the possibility of regularly offering bystander training courses. Bystander training focuses on training everyone to notice and recognise sexual harassment and to know what to do to help victims. In addition, we held two discussion seminars at the University during the autumn.”
Cases have come to light in the media recently that suggest that the University has failed to deal with these issues successfully. What is your view on this?
“It’s perhaps not very surprising that there are examples of things not turning out so well in an organisation as large as Uppsala University, though having said that, every single case is always one too many. My impression is that we have actually become better at tackling the problems and people have to understand that work environment action takes time. These are often complicated cases with many dimensions and due process is essential, it’s important to be careful and to listen. We must also be sure to engage the best external collaborators in investigations.
“Media attention is always tricky for everyone involved, the picture that emerges is often simplistic and sometimes rather misleading and if it’s something that happened a few years ago, it can also reawaken previous conflicts. On the other hand, media attention directs a spotlight on work environment issues and helps to keep the discussion alive. And that’s a good thing.”
Do respected professors perhaps get away with treating other people badly more easily because they are important for the University?
“That’s not my impression. If it were the case, something has to be done. A bad work environment is harmful in the long run and risks crippling the organisation. All cases must be taken seriously and investigated.”
What measures could a perpetrator face?
“It’s possible to take individualised measures, such as verbal reprimands, which are often effective, but in serious cases, dismissal, reporting for prosecution and disciplinary sanctions are also possible measures.”
Is academia worse at work environment management than other organisations? Is there anything special about our academic culture that increases the risk?
“I don’t think we’re worse at work environment management than other large organisations, though we may not have seen the full extent of the problem. There probably are things about the academic environment that can pose a risk. We have a system of doctoral students and supervisors, and other hierarchies and dependencies. There’s also tough systematised competition for positions and research funding. These factors are no excuse for bullying or other forms of harassment, they’re actually more a significant reason why we probably have to work even more deliberately on these issues.
“However, one major insight from the national questionnaire study was that when it comes to sexual harassment, the perpetrator is more often a colleague than a manager or leader. It’s therefore a matter of increasing awareness and talking more about our behaviour towards one another at work. Of course we must allow people to speak their mind freely and be tough in academic discussions, but we must be sure to treat one another well personally. I hope the Staff Policy will encourage meaningful discussions throughout the University.”
- Staff Portal article from 20 May 2022, when the report “Gender-based violence and sexual harassment in the Swedish higher education sector” was released.
- Swedish Work Environment Authority’s project report “Organisatorisk och social arbetsmiljö 2018–2022” (“Organisational and psychosocial work environment 2018–2022”) (in Swedish)
- On ST’s report, news item in Universitetsläraren, 8 December 2022 (in Swedish)
- A Staff Policy for all, news item 20 February 2023
- New gender mainstreaming plan, news item in 6 March 2023 in the Staff Portal
- Whistleblowing function – report of wrongdoing in the Staff Portal
- Read more about work environment and equal opportunities action at the University