Stress, work pressure and psychological problems have long been an issue for students and university staff. Throughout the corona crisis, these issues seem to be on the increase, as the university has disclosed. A major survey involving almost 5,000 students and 1,300 staff members shows that many of them are struggling with stress, work pressure and feelings of melancholy, loneliness or anxiety.

Two out of three students say that they’re experiencing study-related stress during the corona crisis. About half have mentioned problems such as melancholy, loneliness and anxiety.

More pressure

Masters student Romy van Dijk (Sociology) is not at all surprised that so many students are struggling with stress, melancholy or anxiety. Via the Erasmus School of Colour, of which she is a board member, and in a personal capacity, she speaks to many fellow students who are struggling during this crisis. “Not being able to fully participate in education leads to more pressure. It’s not a normal situation and the university shouldn’t act as if it is normal.”

“Not all of the alternative educational methods are equally available to everyone or are appropriate for teaching you the same skills,” she adds. “An online poster presentation is not the same thing as doing an internship or working in a lab. And not everyone can or wants to sit quietly behind a webcam for three hours to take an exam. Since you spend a lot of time at home, you don’t get to experience the positive effects of studying as much and consequently you tend to be left to your own devices. Your self-confidence takes a beating. I see that fear of failure is on the rise in many fellow students or that their motivation is dropping. I myself notice that I’m struggling with a loss of productivity.”

Isolation

Van Dijk is currently working on her thesis. She wrote on Twitter last week that she wouldn’t advise anyone to graduate during this period. “Luckily, things are going fine for me right now. Last week I had a bit of an existential crisis over my graduation. That’s something that often happens. Plenty of students get stuck writing their thesis. But considering that you’ve been in isolation since March, you just don’t feel like you’re going to finish anything. I will continue to work at the university, but other people who are graduating this August probably won’t be coming back. That’s pretty hard to fathom.” Then there’s the economic uncertainty on top of that: “Nobody knows what the labour market will be like in September, so you can’t effectively prepare for that.”

Last year she also wrote a thesis, for her Masters degree in Social History. “Writing a thesis is always a struggle, but more so now than in previous years. I miss the face-to-face contact with my lecturers and fellow students. And it’s much more difficult if you’re sitting at home all alone. You can’t talk to your fellow students about what they are going through and you have no idea how far you’ve got compared to others.”

Apathy or panic

Karin Willemse, assistant professor in History and chair of the education committee, supervises many students as they write their bachelor theses. She highlights two important problems. Firstly, there are practical or technical limitations. “Students suddenly have to do their entire research from home with limited resources. For History, for example, primary source research is extremely important, yet archives have been closed for two months. So, anyone who would have liked to do that has been forced to redirect their research.” She also sees certain students struggling with psychological problems. “With some of my students I can see that insecurity, delays or lack of productivity leads to apathy or panic. Many of them were admitted later to start their thesis, for example, because they were already a bit behind schedule or came back from an exchange in January. It’s already difficult for them under normal circumstances, for instance, if they fall ill or miss a supervision session, let alone in an unprecedented crisis like this one.”

Employees are also suffering from heavy workloads and stress during this period. Three out of five employees claim to be experiencing work pressure during the corona crisis and about one in three feels downcast, lonely or anxious. Willemse recognises the pressures of work. Every day she gets up and goes to bed with all the work that has to be done. “As a teacher I find it incredibly important to help my students properly, but that takes a lot more time nowadays. The same goes for all my colleagues. There is an enormous amount of tension. Besides that, there are also lecturers who have to deal with a busy home life and lack a quiet place to work because their partner or children are at home.”

This is not just because of the extra time she spends supervising those who are writing their dissertations (she has in fact taken on additional supervision sessions) – but also because of the other work methods now that all teaching is done online. “I’m way behind in marking, for one thing. In order for exams to go ahead, we have provided a lot of open questions and essay assignments. But that means a lot more revision work. I do have funding for research, but I can’t do any of that at all at the moment.”

Demonstrably delayed

There is some room for flexibility should students be demonstrably delayed as a result of the corona crisis. “As teachers, we’re asked to find out which students have definitely been delayed as a result of the virus. We’re only allowed to show some flexibility with these particular students. Nevertheless, even these students must finish their bachelor thesis by 31 July, although a week’s delay could make a huge difference for one of those students.”

What’s more, as far as Willemse is concerned, it is not up to teachers to make that kind of decision. They are not in a position to determine to what extent someone is actually suffering from the current situation. And more importantly: “It can feel quite intimidating when I ask a student how they are doing when it comes to their mental health. They have less grip on things as it is, thanks to corona, but mainly due to the insecurity that they are currently experiencing. Some of them don’t even know if they will be able to start their Masters next year.”

Rutger Engels rector opening academisch jaar 2019 foto ronald van den heerik

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Flexible deadlines, extra resits

“At this point in time, it’s definitely still possible to hand in a good thesis, but students should be granted a bit more time.” Don’t extra resits and more flexible deadlines mean higher workloads for teachers? “Not at all,” according to Willemse. “We shouldn’t give all students that kind of leeway. Fortunately, a large group of students is doing well and won’t be needing it. I expect that this would actually spread the workload out more.”

Van Dijk thinks she will hand in her thesis on time, despite the situation, although she is also hoping for more flexible arrangements for resits or extensions. “I see many students around me who aren’t thriving in this new online education environment. This could be because they might already have psychological problems or are on the autistic spectrum. Some are now opting to skip courses, which invariably leads to study delays and higher debts. Other students have to deal with substantial economic repercussions because they are no longer able to work. The fact that there is no political solution to this is something that disheartens and upsets me.”

Do you need help? Or would you like to have an informal chat with someone? Open Up is for staff, where you can arrange a free consultation with a psychologist. For students, the university has set up Are You OK Out There, a platform with all sorts of tips for your well-being under quarantine as well as a chat service staffed by students. The Living Room has the Pandemic Pal Programme, whereby you are linked to another student so that you can get to know each other.

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