Burn Out Culture at University

Amy Irvine discusses burn out culture at university and the impact this has on students’ physical and mental wellbeing.

Students at many universities are being increasingly encouraged to work to the point of being detrimental to physical and mental wellbeing. Personally, I have been putting off even writing this due to the stress of final year workload and part-time bar work – while still trying to make time to see those who are important to me. It seems difficult to complain or seek help at this point when every single person in your year, or the year below you, is going through almost exactly the same thing. However, just because never having any time to take care of yourself, and pulling all-nighters to get your work finished, seems to be normal, it doesn’t mean that this is healthy.

Many students have to balance completing a full time degree and voluntary commitments to boost a ‘graduate CV’ alongside part-time work. For those who work during evenings or nights, it can often mean working in the library all day and going straight to work. Then, you may not be back until late night or early morning. For those working zero hours contracts, the irregularity of work patterns may make it harder to settle into a routine. It’s not uncommon for lecturers to put reading up at last minute, either. Some people talk about treating university as a nine to five job, but for others, certain constraints make this impossible. It’s difficult to remember the last time where you didn’t feel tired or stretched too thin. Eating healthily and getting regular exercise, alongside other frequent recommendations, seem harder to do when juggling so many other things at once.  You may feel like partying and socialising is setting you back more and more. We probably need to be a bit less hard on ourselves, and allow ourselves to watch the new episode of our favourite TV show without feeling guilty. However, these platitudes will only go so far, and these worries may still be there in the back of your mind.

Some universities and student organisations have sought well-meaning solutions to the problem – yet these are merely a plaster over a wound. For example, in 2016, some students at Edinburgh University called for ‘nap pods’ on campus. These would cost around £10,000 each. A survey on campus of 1500 students said that 93% of students said that they felt like they needed a nap when on campus; 53% of student council representatives went on to vote in favour of their installation. However, at a university attended by around 35,000, four ‘nap pods’ that offer twenty-minute slots do not necessarily seem like the solution to sleep deprivation and tiredness amongst students. These people will still have to balance their workload with social lives, and possibly paid work and extra curriculars. It may seem to be a better use of time to figure out why seeing someone accidentally asleep at their desk seems like a semi-regular occurrence. This example seems to be well meaning, but seems to do very little to provide even temporary relief. Solutions need to be birthed in a wider context, even if they don’t solve the issue completely.

Mental health services at universities are also increasingly stretched thin. This is, in large, to do with increased numbers of students seeking professional help relating to mental illness. According to the Liberal Democrats, students at the University of Glasgow have had to wait up to 40 weeks for a counselling appointment. In academic year 2015-16, 2276 students used the university’s counselling and psychological services. This statistic is indicative of students struggling with mental health issues, but for obvious reasons would not include those who used NHS services, and more so those who were put off by how difficult it is to get professional help. This is alongside an increase in 2014-15 in students dropping out due to mental health problems: this is over double to that in 2009-10. Increases in availability of mental health professionals on University campus would undoubtedly be of health to many, but this is one of many changes potentially needed when mental illness amongst student populations is increasing exponentially each year.

Overall, working until you’ve reached the stage of burnout is increasingly normalised at universities. There are occasions where staff are not understanding when it comes to students who have demands outside of university on their lives. This may make having a steady routine impossible for some people. Solutions proposed by student organisations fail to get to the root of the cause. Examples like Edinburgh’s ‘nap pods’ might even further normalise constantly being on the verge of running on empty. University mental health services are increasingly subscribed to and harder to access. If there is one thing we can be certain of, it is that students deserve better.

[Amy Irvine]

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