’We don’t fix personal problems, we fix the environment and culture’

The Wellbeing Signal Group. From left to right: Hind Boulgalag, Toos van Gool, A
The Wellbeing Signal Group. From left to right: Hind Boulgalag, Toos van Gool, Apoorva Sonawane, Tom Oomen, Idoia Cortes Garcia, Monica Zakhari, Claudia Hanegraaf, Lucas Haselhoff and Elise van Lieshout. Photo: Bart van Overbeeke
Mechanical Engineering students and staff can contact the Wellbeing Signal Group with their questions, suggestions and concerns regarding wellbeing.

Picking up signals about wellbeing, recognizing patterns and making sure something is done about them department-wide. That is the mission of the Wellbeing Signal Group, which has been running for just under a year now at the Mechanical Engineering department. Monica Zakhari is the group’s chair and she explains: "Mind you: we don’t take over the role of personal helplines like the confidential advisors. We take a broader view and seek solutions for the wellbeing of the entire community."

When people feel comfortable, safe, welcome and valued, they can thrive. Whether they are students, scientists or support staff - everyone should be able to feel at home. That may seem like a hollow promise, a given. Dean Patrick Anderson of Mechanical Engineering knows, however, that this can be more challenging in practice.

Since taking office as dean in September 2022, he has put wellbeing high on his list of priorities and actions. For example, he took action when he heard from various quarters that female students were being cajoled by construction workers during the renovation of the Neuron building. After consulting with the principal, Real Estate, who also took action and spoke with the contractor, that problem was solved.

Historically male-dominated

"Our department has historically been a male-dominated environment," Anderson says. "Fortunately, that is changing rapidly. Fifteen percent of our bachelor students is female this academic year. And, thanks to the IrŤne Curie Fellowship , we have brought in a lot of women - for example, 44 percent of our assistant professors are now women."

Awareness

A changing department, including increasingly international staff, requires an inclusive culture and awareness. Anderson: "I teach the course Introduction to Mechanical Engineering for freshmen in which I tell them that they are studying in an environment where there are many men and significantly fewer women. And that we are a department with people from different backgrounds. I think it’s important for them to be aware of this. And that they know they can come to us if they run into something."

I want our people to know that we are doing something with their comments about wellbeing.

Dean Patrick Anderson


Anderson cites the example of the construction workers at Neuron. "I want our community to know that the comments they bring to us about wellbeing are being addressed. We also let them know what we have done to seek a solution. I think it is important to bring matters full circle."


Voice of the younger generation

Giving the younger generation a voice, and providing an opportunity to exchange ideas and engage in peer-to-peer exchange, is much needed in Anderson’s view. With help from Human Resources Management, he figured out how that could take shape. At an event organized for that purpose, where personal leadership and social safety and wellbeing were on the agenda, assistant professor Monica Zakhari came into the picture.

Anderson: "I also wanted to do something with social safety, for the whole department. The MindLab performance on this topic had impressed me. I wondered how we could follow up on that."

From counter to group

The dean thought of establishing somewhere that people could bring forth situations that made them uncomfortable. Former social safety catalyst Carla Maria Verwer came up with the idea of a Wellbeing Signal Group (WSG). Anderson immediately thought of the young assistant professor Monica Zakhari and paired the two together. Zakhari became chair of the WSG and helped set it up further.

"This role brings me a lot of fulfilment," Zakhari says. "I love talking to people and noticed that colleagues knew where they could get hold of me. They felt comfortable enough with me to bring their problems to the table, but it was just talk and a listening ear. Now I can do something with it, help initiate change."

There is always someone with whom you can talk, and feel comfortable and safe in doing so.

Dean Patrick Anderson


Just under a year later, WSG consists of nine people from almost all sections of the department (read who they are here ). "It’s good that the different ’flavors’ of people are represented in this group," Anderson says. "There is always someone with whom you can talk, and feel comfortable and safe in doing so."

From student to student

This should lower the threshold for going to someone. "If you as a student have a problem with a teacher, previously you had to go to the dean, program director or academic advisor. Now they can simply talk to a student from the WSG, which makes it easier."

’We ME’ers are not big on talking - that has to change’

Is something shouted at you in the hallways that makes you feel uncomfortable? Do you find it difficult to connect? Do you feel unheard by your group or tutor during group work? Or are you struggling with something and just want to talk about it with someone? For this, Mechanical Engineering bachelor students can contact Elise van Lieshout and Lucas Hasselhoff.

"Nothing is too small, or unimportant. You should feel free to raise the alarm," Van Lieshout says emphatically. She is one of the two contacts for bachelor students in the Wellbeing Signal Group (WSG). The wellbeing of her fellow students was already her focus when she was on the board of the Simon Stevin study association last year.

Solve

"I noticed even then that small things come into play, and that people are quite willing to report it. For example, an annoying comment from a teacher. Students want it to be fixed, or for something to change, but don’t want to make a big issue out of it. We didn’t really have a facility for this within the department."

For WSG members, it’s also nice to have a broad representation. "Personally, I have no problem going up to a professor, for example, to discuss a reported incident. Those can be uncomfortable conversations, so we support each other and discuss the cases, always anonymously by the way. But if any of us does find it difficult to go to a professor, someone else can take it over," Zakhari explains.

Insiders

She emphasizes that the Wellbeing Signal Group does not take over the role of other helplines at TU/e, such as a confidentiality advisor or academic advisor. "We are insiders, people who work and study in the same place, who care about the department and want to help improve it."

We are insiders, who work and study in the same place. And who want to help improve the department.

Monica Zakhari, WSG chair


"We always listen, but refer personal problems to the appropriate help lines. When we see problems being reported more frequently, and recognize patterns, we make sure the issue gets to the right person within the department. So that they can create change."

And that goes beyond social safety. "We want everyone to be able to be as they are, and to feel comfortable here. It’s about wellbeing in the broadest sense," Zakhari states.

’I felt I had to do this job the macho way’

If there is anyone who knows what it can bring you when you allow yourself to be vulnerable and open, it is Monica Zakhari . The Egyptian-born assistant professor at Mechanical Engineering has endometriosis, which causes her a lot of pain that flares up even more violently during her ovulation and menstruation. Sometimes she can’t function for days, doing nothing but lying curled up to minimize the pain.

"On the outside you don’t see that I have endometriosis ; it’s a hidden disability that I haven’t confided in anyone for a long time. I felt I had to do this job the macho way. I regularly pulled all-nighters and worked weekends to compensate for the days I couldn’t work."


When an older colleague complained to her about corona and said it was easy for her to not be concerned about it because she was young and healthy, something snapped inside her. "I realized that you can never tell from the outside what is going on inside someone, or how someone is feeling. Just because I look good doesn’t mean that feel good too. I was in a lot of pain on that day, but didn’t show it."

Zakhari dedicates an average of one day a week to WSG. "In the beginning, I was the face of the group, and people approached me. Fortunately, people are also approaching the other members more and more now."

Cases

So, what comes up in the Wellbeing Signal Group? That can vary enormously, Zakhari now knows from experience. "By talking to a lot of people, you hear where there is overlap, and what needs to be addressed on a bigger scale."

Like the signal that the female students of the department sometimes feel lonely. "We had conversations about that with students, the dean, and ESA (Education and Student Affairs, ed.). The students didn’t know from each other that they felt the same way, but we saw that the problem was department-wide."

Female students sometimes feel lonely and don’t always know this from each other. Thanks to these signals, we can ensure that the problem is addressed department-wide.

Monica Zakhari, WSG chair

Handles and courses

Now there is a Get Together for female students every quartile, the first one was held in mid-November. "The energy there was so good, it was heartwarming," Zakhari says. "It’s a place where they can talk about what they’re working on, but also what they’re worried about."

Students also will receive a course each year on inclusive interactions as part of a new track in their personal and professional development called ’Inclusive Leadership and Collaboration’. "This was a direct action from our ESA department to the signals delivered by the WSG," Zakhari says proudly. "In the course, students learn how to react if someone makes a comment you don’t like. We also teach study group tutors how to deal with that."

More international

The integration of international staff and students is a topic of discussion. "Can we make what’s on offer in the cafeteria more international? How do you become an inclusive environment?"


Awareness is an important task for WSG. "People often don’t realize that they make another person feel uncomfortable - unconsciously. While nobody makes nasty remarks towards women on purpose, you do have to say something about it so that they become aware of it." They try to train that awareness through workshops and courses.

Small things, all the difference

"Sometimes it’s little things that can make all the difference," Zakhari says. "For example, someone was surprised that photos were being taken unannounced at some meetings. That has now been settled with a disclaimer that a photographer is present at these meetings. Another question: why is the cafeteria closed, unannounced, during spring break? That’s something we can deal with more easily and look for a solution with the right people."

Cultural change takes time. The people who come to us understand that.

Monica Zakhari, WSG chair


Dean Patrick Anderson is proud of the people running the Wellbeing Signal Group within his department. As such, Zakhari and he enjoy sharing their story with colleagues from other departments. As he recently did so in a team session with other departments.

Improve the environment

Zakhari: "People who come to us know that change takes time. We don’t fix personal problems, we fix the environment and culture. My ultimate aim is for us to make ourselves redundant. If everyone is able to give signals and pick up on them, we will have a self-correcting department. That may be a pipe dream, but one can hope. Until then, together we will focus on making our department a nicer place in which to work."

From our strategy: on social safety

People are the heart and soul of our university, and we want to provide them with a safe place to work and study. An environment in which everyone feels physically, mentally and emotionally safe. Collegiality and respect for each other, regardless of position, experience or background, are of great importance to us.

Social safety is a matter for all’of us. All students, employees and guests of TU/e are jointly responsible for a safe and positive study and working environment. If you are faced with an unsafe situation or undesirable behavior, you can turn to different people and organizations. This guide for employees will help you find your way. There is also a social safety guide for students . In addition, students can always turn to 24 students who act as confidential contact persons .

Social safety falls under the theme of Resilience within our Strategy 2030 .