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Rest is essential to preventing academic burnout

By Niamh Flanagan

Harmful stereotypes obscure the real issues faced by many students whose mental health is suffering as they attempt to cope with multiple competing obligations at university.

In a culture that continually perpetuates narratives of university students as living lives of hedonism and alcohol fuelled inertia, attempting to initiate conversations around the necessity of rest for students can produce something of a cognitive dissonance, both for students themselves and for non-university-goers alike. I can’t count the number of conversations I have personally had with either older adults who themselves graduated many decades ago, or non-university attending peers, who have referenced my lack of understanding of how difficult the “real world” of full-time work is compared to my state-funded, easy ride of a time at university. Often when confronted with these assertions, I’ve allowed them to go unchallenged, nodded along sheepishly, acquiescing to the generalisations for reasons I don’t fully understand- because my experience of university has been far from one defined by unbridled hedonism and indulgence. Throughout my four years as an undergraduate, I have juggled a 20-plus hour working week with up to ten contact hours of university classes, and countless hours of independent study towards the completion of coursework or exams. This isn’t mentioning the time I’ve invested in volunteering and extracurricular activities, as we’re increasingly reminded that to enter the job market it is “not enough” to just have a degree. Or the efforts required to maintain a romantic relationship, keep fit, make new friends, keep existing ones, and remember to let my parents know I’m still alive on a semi-regular basis. All of this has often been fun, exciting, and enriching. I’m not saying my time at university has been miserable. But I’ve often also been exhausted; completely and utterly burnt-out, feeling as though I’m manically trying to achieve a number of incompatible goals –  be it financial security, academic achievement, personal development, or social enrichment, and in the process barely keeping my head above water. Clearly, I’m not alone: 87% of university students feel they struggle to cope with the social and academic aspects of student life, citing working alongside studies, difficulty coping with the workload, financial difficulties and isolation as contributing factors.

So why do I mutely nod along, grimacing apologetically when middle aged men make jokes about students sleeping till the middle of the day, or an old school friend who went straight into employment makes disparaging remarks about how nice life must be when you’re on the receiving end of a student loan? Why have I as a student internalised and accepted these notions? Why do I wake up with a pit of dread and guilt in my stomach if I sleep in past 10am, even if I’ve been up till the early hours completing an essay, or indeed a shift?

Activist Charlie Craggs is one of many voices beginning to articulate the problems inherent to our inability as a society to recognise the importance of rest to preventing toxic stress and the resulting burnout, highlighting the damaging connection we all seem to make between productivity and self worth, wherein rest is perceived as something that needs to be earnt, rather than a vital element of maintaining physical and emotional health. Interviewed recently, she asserted that “We all need to rest more, and if I had my way it would be enforced. Legally.” Her interview resonated with me in more ways than one, but most notably in that I realised that I rarely consciously set aside time to rest. Instead, I ambitiously over-schedule my weeks, and then fall into bed bound Netflix binges at the most inconvenient of times as my overstimulated brain simply refuses to engage in productive activity any longer. These lapses in my pre-ordained schedule are not even restful, as I spend them subconsciously chastising myself for neglecting my studies or extracurriculars.

As such, I’m making the case for the arguments presented by activists such as Craggs to be extended and applied specifically to the student population. I’m obviously not arguing that student life is quantifiably harder than full time paid work – but I am arguing that generalisations about the nature of student existence are unhelpful, because the student experience is fundamentally a non-homogenous one. I have encountered many students whose only responsibility is their studies, blessed with financial support adequate enough to preclude them from needing a job. Some of those students work very hard at their studies. Some less so. But I’ve also encountered as many students who work sometimes multiple jobs, sometimes on top of unpaid placements, always in addition to full-time studies, and often at the expense of their mental wellbeing. The point is that we shouldn’t continue to allow overly prescriptive and misleading generalisations about students to proliferate unchallenged, and that we need to start advocating for the recognition of the unique challenges that student living can present, for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the potential that acknowledging the necessity of rest for students has for tackling the student mental health crisis. A recent study found 38% of students felt university had negatively impacted their mental health and attributed this predominantly to anxieties around academic performance and time management. The notion of enforced rest is an interesting one, and the question of how it could be tangibly implemented is complicated. As a starting point, however, universities could simply begin to seek to understand the pressures placed upon their students in a more comprehensive and productive manner – a 2020 Guardian investigation into students who work whilst studying found that only 10% of universities had collected any data on the number of their students who undertook paid work.

At the University of Glasgow, support is available in the form of hardship grants or counselling only when students reach out themselves – preventative strategies designed to reach out to students and engage with their wellbeing and mental health do not exist. Indeed, for students who do reach out with concerns of stress and burnout, institutional mechanisms such as the Good Cause system often do not recognise them as valid extenuating circumstances for extensions or reasonable adjustments. The School of Humanities guidelines for 5 day extensions reject stress and inability to manage time, as well as commitments to paid work, as acceptable justifications. Longer extensions granted through the Good Cause system demand evidence to be approved – which leads to the inevitable question of how students are expected to physically prove the severity of academic burnout or indeed its impediment upon their ability to complete work? In 2021, The Glasgow Guardian reported that a student had a Good Cause claim rejected despite providing evidence in the form of a letter from a therapist who vouched for the student’s inability to complete work as a result of deteriorating mental health.

Rest is essential to our ability to function, students and non-students alike. Maybe if I set aside a few afternoons a week to doing absolutely whatever I feel like, be that laying in bed on my phone, taking a walk, or calling a friend, I might avoid the shame-fuelled midday Netflix binges that are a sure-fire signifier that I’m struggling to cope. Relentless productivity is not sustainable, nor conducive to high functioning performance, and this is as true for the student population as any other demographic. Universities need to adopt holistic approaches designed to recognise and support students in achieving healthy balances between the multiple competing pressures of student life.


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