NSM Focus | Professor Beatrice van der Heijden: ‘Not only productive, but also healthy and happy’

We live longer, and we work longer. If only for this reason, sustainable deployment deserves our attention. But the nature and content of our work is also changing, among other things due to new technologies and a more flexible labour market. This asks a lot from employers and employees: adjusting, learning, investing, and keeping up. “But we should make sure that sustainable deployment isn’t just about productivity,” warns Professor Beatrice van der Heijden (Strategic Human Resource Management).

Around age 40, a shift occurs in how managers think about their employees’ employability. This is shocking, says Van der Heijden. “You still have so many years together at that point. But unfortunately, we see that from this age onwards, managers invest less in employees, as if the return on investment of training and development programmes is no longer high enough – an assumption that then, of course, seeps into the employee’s own attitude.”
Of course, there is a reason why managers are so focused on productivity. “After all, this is what they are assessed on too. But it can lead to losing sight of two other relevant aspects of sustainable deployment: health and happiness at work.”

Happy until the finish line

Work offers meaning, rhythm, and a useful way to spend the day. “Everyone has a right to these things. But practice shows something quite different.” Van der Heijden mentions the example of age discrimination. “Once retirement is in sight, employees are often treated as if they already have one foot out of the door. They’re not invited to take part in programmes, are less involved in decisions, their knowledge is no longer put to optimum use, etc. This leads to people burning out before they reach the finish line. It costs a lot of energy to resist this.”

Retirement is a major life event, and employer and employee are jointly responsible for making sure it goes well. “Talk to each other about how to make sure the employee reaches the finish feeling productive, healthy and happy. What does the employer expect? What does the employee need? How can they find each other in this process?” By linking an older employee to a younger colleague, for example, the senior employee can pass on their knowledge while remaining up-to-date thanks to the new knowledge of the junior employee. Another good idea is to find out in time whether the prospective pensionado feels the need to gradually reduce their working hours (part-time retirement), to smooth out the transition. “Don’t let your employees go to soon, but also not too late.”


The motto is: talk to each other. About matters such as informal care, pregnancy and parental leave, learning and development opportunities, reducing work pressure, in short: about beautiful and difficult moments, at set times, and throughout a person’s career. A clear, but not necessarily easy task. “For example, most managers report, when asked, that they believe you should be cautious when speaking to people who are psychologically vulnerable. However, research shows that employees who are vulnerable are at risk of being stigmatised. They suffer from prejudices, tend to be passed over for promotion, experience no trust from their superiors, or are bullied. Reasons enough not to be open and honest in an interview with your manager. On the other hand, a manager who doesn’t know anything about you can’t take your situation into account.”

HRM policy is formulated at the top, with advice from HRM professionals. Managers and team leaders are then expected to translate this policy into best practices, explains Van der Heijden. “The success of the policy depends on the interpretation and implementation of managers – who are not necessarily all specially trained for it; many managers are promoted from an operational into an executive position. It is therefore very important that they are trained and also raise the alarm themselves when they find that their skills are insufficient.”

On with it!

To help HRM professionals, managers, and employees, HAN lector and Professor by Special Appointment of Sustainable Deployment at the Open University Annet de Lange and Beatrice van der Heijden co-authored the 2015 manual ‘Een leven lang inzetbaar’ (‘Deployable for life’). The third, entirely revised edition includes a workbook with assignments, interventions, checklists, and more (see box). Readers are invited, step by step, to get to work on their own sustainable deployment or that of their employees. In this way, the workbook is very much in line with what Van der Heijden says above: sustainable deployment is a shared responsibility of employer and employee.

Example assignment

One of the assignments in the workbook is proactively reflecting on your career development. In answering the questions, the participant is invited to take stock.

Answer the following questions

  1. How often do you take the time to take stock of your career goals? To consciously reflect on where you are right now, to what extent this matches the goals you set for yourself, and whether your current career path is still heading in the right direction.
  2. How often do you talk to family, friends, colleagues, or maybe a career coach about what you want to achieve in your career? What are the themes you discuss; which themes do you perhaps forget?

Pro-active career building is about taking the initiative to expand your network, sharing with others what knowledge and skills you have, and formulating plans for achieving your career goals.

  1. How often do you consciously make contact with people you can learn from or who could strategically help you in your career? In what ways do you actively communicate to others what your competencies are and how these can contribute to the tasks you perform alone or with others?
  2. How often do you formulate or reformulate short-term and long-term career goals? What steps do you take to, for example, map existing opportunities for further development or potential other work activities?

Once you have answered the above questions for yourself, it is important to also reflect on what this gives you.

  1. In what ways does it help you in your work, career, or life, to proactively reflect on and give form to your career?
  2. What strategies do you find most effective?
  3. Where would you like to grow further?
  4. And who can help you in this process?