Two out of three students are experiencing study-related stress. Almost half are suffering from low spirits, fatigue, loneliness and anxiety. Moreover, plenty of staff members are also suffering from these kinds of symptoms. Approximately 60 % are experiencing work pressure and one in three is suffering from low spirits, loneliness or anxiety. Did those results shock you? How do you view these, as a rector and a psychologist?

“These results are in line with similar research conducted here in the Netherlands and abroad, so this didn’t come as a surprise. As a psychologist and as rector, I would prefer to see that our students and staff are spared as much as possible any adverse effects stemming from this crisis. However, it seems inevitable that these kinds of effects are bound to occur on several levels. On the fronts where we as a university have an influence, such as work pressure and psychological support for students, we have been working hard to mitigate these effects or turn things around for the better and will continue to do so in the future.”

It struck me that international students and staff feel down, anxious and stressed more often than Dutch students and staff. Do you have a clarification for this?

“No clear explanation for this came out of the survey. But I can imagine that you are more concerned about your family and friends when you are far away from them. And you don’t know when you’ll be able to see them again, either. It’s so different when your family lives in South America instead of Zeeland. In addition, people from other countries might lack a social safety net in the Netherlands. It’s harder to keep up to date on COVID-19 developments in the Netherlands if you don’t (yet) speak the Dutch language. Loss of work as well as impaired study facilities can also cause more problems, precisely because there is no social safety net nearby. The university keeps an eye out for this. We also try to provide all information in English as soon as we are able.”

In itself, stress, psychological problems and work pressure have long been a cause for concern among students and university staff. Do you think the corona crisis has exacerbated this? And if so, why?

“The corona crisis has definitely exacerbated this, as the survey has clearly shown. A crisis creates more uncertainty for you and your loved ones. For example, many of our employees are now teaching exclusively online. The practice and nature of their work has been completely transformed within a very short period of time. Despite this sudden change, they have done a tremendous job and we are proud of how they have made that transition. What’s more, everyone has had to get used to studying and working from home and plans that you may have made might not go ahead. This calls for adaptability and resilience on everyone’s part. We see that many students and staff are able to cope well with this. Yet there are also vulnerable groups at the university who we need to pay more attention to.”

What about PhD candidates, for example? They indicate more often than other colleagues that they’re suffering from low spirits, loneliness and anxiety.

“Yes, that’s true. Right from the outset of the crisis we endeavoured to let everyone know that the services we offer in this respect are not only available to PhD candidates who have a paid position, but also to all other PhD candidates. Plus, we are currently trying to draw up an inventory of what the most pressing issues are for them. We realise that many of them are unable to carry out their research as planned at the moment. This obviously leads to more tension. Some of the PhD candidates have also had to invest a lot of extra time in the rush to create online educational resources, which sometimes causes some delays in the research as well.”


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High levels of study-related stress and work pressure throughout the corona crisis

Students and employees experience more study stress, work pressure and mental health…

You say that you are keeping an eye out for groups of students and staff who are having a tough time and that you’re working hard to mitigate any issues. What do the research results signify in concrete terms when it comes to policy?

“The initiatives that have already been launched, such as ‘Are you OK out there?’ and ‘Open Up’, are set to continue. On top of that, we’re going to tackle the added pressure and stress levels that people are experiencing. Suitable arrangements need to be agreed to within teams and a policy underpinning this needs to be in place right from the get-go. The research also shows that the services offered to employees are rated as ‘good’, with a score averaging 7.6. At the same time, these services are mainly aimed at better equipping an individual to deal with stressful situations. The step that we now want to take is to remove the sources of stress wherever possible.”

A follow-up study is also on its way. What will that look like? What are you interested in specifically?

“The purpose of this survey was to find out as quickly as we could how our staff and students are coping. We had already decided beforehand that there would also be another, more in-depth study which we would set up in collaboration with our scientists who have expertise in the field of health and well-being. In any case, we will be carrying out surveys repeatedly so as not only to have an idea of the current ‘temperature’, but also to be able to check for any fluctuations in that temperature.”

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.