The work environment – crucial for good performance


First-class work environment lays the foundation for academic success and innovation. Many of us spend about a third of our waking hours together at work, so a good working environment is important.


April 28 is World Day for Safety and Health at Work. It's a UN observance initiated by the International Labour Organization (ILO), and it has been in place since 2003.


Måns Svensson, President at Jönköping University, who wrote the blog post, has engaged with work and workplace safety issues in various capacities, both in his research and in leadership roles.

The majority of people at Jönköping University (JU) are students who are in training for important future roles in society. In addition, we not only have all those employees who work as teachers and researchers, but also specialists of various kinds such as librarians, economists, communicators, cleaning staff, HR people, study counsellors and many more. All of them fulfil crucial functions for the success of our activities. A fundamental prerequisite for achieving our ambitious goals is that we work together to create an inspiring, safe, and secure working environment. An obvious starting point is that bullying and other victimization must never occur.

The idea that an improved work environment creates the conditions for high-quality education and research is not new. The report "Work environment and productivity in academia", published by researchers at Karolinska Institutet (KI) in 2018, showed that the work environment has a crucial impact on productivity, both in terms of various bibliometric indicators and external grants received. That particular study did not focus on quality in education or in higher education services, but I am convinced that the results apply to all areas at our higher education institutions.

Leadership, self-monitoring, and clear objectives – most significant for health and safety

In academia, as in all workplaces, work environment issues have a central intrinsic value. Everyone has the right to a safe and secure working environment. The work environment is also one of the most important tools for promoting good performance. The researchers behind the study from KI concluded that the results are directly applicable to the strategic work of higher education institutions to improve scientific productivity. In particular, they identified three areas as key to achieving good results:

  • Leadership and organizational climate
  • Requirements, self-monitoring & support
  • Goals & roles

Leadership was found to be the most important factor for good performance. They found that institutions characterized by caring, transparent and fair leadership performed best. Caring leadership fosters the organizational climate in a way that creates a sense of social support from both managers and colleagues.

In terms of demands and control, they found that high demands for performance should be accompanied by a high degree of an employees self-control over the organization of their work. Scientific output benefited from sufficient professional discretion and a sense of influence and empowerment among staff. Too much micro management through objectives and results cannot be exercised, and being constantly measured against overly specific requirements stifles creativity and inhibits performance. One cannot exercise too high a degree of detailed objectives and results-based management, and being constantly measured against overly specific requirements stifles creativity and inhibits performance.

The third important factor that they found created the conditions for scientific achievement was clear operational objectives. Clear, appropriately challenging, and specific objectives lead to a better working environment and increased output. Quite simply, it is important that employees know and understand what the organization is trying to achieve.

Important to safeguard the professional room for manoeuvre

For me, this corresponds well with ideas and thoughts on trust-based governance and management where the decision-making space is moved out to the front lines of the organisation. For people to thrive in their work and drive positive development, professional freedom of action must be protected. Organizational trust is not primarily about soft values and emotions, but about structural conditions such as transparency, governance, evaluation, organization, and distribution of resources. For many years, the organizational conditions for work in academia, as in other parts of the public sector, have been moving towards increased bureaucratization and sometimes insensitive forms of objectives and results-based management. This trend needs to be reversed, not least to safeguard the working environment. At the same time, it is important to emphasize that trust-based governance and management is not a laissez-faire philosophy where control and follow-up are completely absent. Rather, it is about finding a good balance between clear objectives combined with distributed leadership and adequate control mechanisms. Trust should go hand in hand with a follow-up that is at best perceived as flexible, supportive, and not unnecessarily bureaucratic or labour-intensive.

Trust – a key element of JU's new Management Policy

In the recently adopted JU Management Policy, we state that leadership at JU should be characterized by trust. It is important to underline that trust is not an empty value, but that it is about specific principles for how to organize, lead and allocate resources. Together, we will explore how these principles can best be implemented and translated into our organization. The aim is to strengthen the work environment, safeguard professional freedom of action and create the conditions for psychological security. If we succeed in this, it is my conviction that it will contribute to the continuation of JU's fantastic success story.

The study from Karolinska Institutet

The report "Work environment and productivity in academia" was published in 2018 by a group of well-qualified researchers at Karolinska Institutet (KI). The report presented the results of a comprehensive register study with data from KI over a period of time from 2007 to 2014. By analyzing employee surveys and scientific performance, among other things, at all of the university's departments, they were able to establish that the work environment has a crucial impact on productivity, both in terms of various bibliometric indicators and in terms of external grants received.

Jensen I., Björklund C., Aboagye E., Hagberg J., Bodin L. Work environment and productivity in academia. A study of the importance of the psychosocial work environment for researchers' performance. Unit for Intervention and Implementation Research in Occupational Health. Institute of Environmental Medicine. Karolinska Institutet. 2018.


Måns Svensson

President, Jönköping University

Vertikals Guest blogger

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