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Opinion: Burnout is worse this year — U of T needs to address mental wellness

Reviewing course structure, academic policies, health services
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HANNAH FLEISCH/THE VARSITY
HANNAH FLEISCH/THE VARSITY

Burnout and undue stress are common features of life as a university student. Students balance jobs, family, and social lives along with several other commitments. Unfortunately, the pandemic and the resultant changes it has brought to everyone’s daily routines have worsened this burnout.

 

New challenges

To start with perhaps the most important contributing factor — academics — the pandemic brought with it unprecedented changes to delivery methods. Some professors have changed their syllabi and grading schemes to include shorter assignments spread out over the term — perhaps in an attempt to help keep students on track. 

I’ve found that, while the weighting of these numerous smaller assignments may be minimal compared to the larger assignments pre-pandemic, this means that students have to constantly study. Every week involves consistent work on our part as opposed to a large amount of work centred around fewer deadlines. 

This can be beneficial for some. Students can now stress less about the results of a few assignments that will largely dictate their entire grade. On the other hand, this puts undue stress on the students who struggle to keep up week to week. 

Now, if you face a tough or busy couple of weeks and fall behind on schoolwork, you’ve potentially missed many assignments — with no chance of catching up. 

The online format has also exacerbated burnout in other ways. Some students are still completing the term from abroad. In their cases, burnout is bound to be more pronounced as attending lectures and tutorials in the middle of the night from a different time zone cannot be easy for anyone. On top of managing deadlines across two time zones, they must socialize with friends and peers completely online depending on the pandemic restrictions of their countries. 

The normal pick-me-ups and stress relieving activities that we would usually turn to during these times, such as hanging out with friends or participating in extracurricular activities, have unfortunately been restricted. No matter where they are situated on the globe, students are often confined to the physical spaces in their rooms as the recent shift to greater online delivery brings an end to face-to-face interactions for many. 

 

How U of T should respond 

While preventing burnout completely may not be possible, U of T should be committed to finding appropriate remedies. Burnout is always a concern for students, but professors and the university administration should have done better to address the fact that this year is far from normal. 

For instance, professors should consult students as to what is realistic before setting their syllabi in stone. Our current system allows no institutional pathway to make our thoughts heard on a syllabus until the semester is over and course evaluations roll around. Professors need to actively solicit feedback from students and incorporate their suggestions meaningfully. 

Moreover, significant resources and pathways should exist for students to redistribute grade weightings, and a clear and standardized policy should be in place for students to make up missed assignments. Having no recourse to improve one’s grade demotivates students and forms a dangerous cycle wherein burnout causes more burnout as work piles up. 

When the pandemic started, several changes were made to academic policy such as extending credit/no credit (CR/NCR) deadlines. For many students, this semester is just as stressful and chaotic as the winter semester last year when the pandemic first started to affect U of T. Clearly, there was a strong enough argument to allow students greater flexibility with CR/NCR then, so why does that argument no longer apply to this semester?

Aside from changes to academic policy and course structure, the university needs to encourage participation in clubs and extracurricular activities, especially for first-year students who lack an established community on campus. 

But, perhaps most importantly, U of T needs to invest in mental health support. Providing new initiatives such as My Student Support Program and an online discussion forum is helpful and can be of great assistance for students with immediate needs. However, it leaves students who require long-term care in the dust. 

It looks like COVID-19 is here to stay, and unless things change, student burnout will also continue. In this scenario, U of T needs to step up in providing support through changes to course structures, academic policies, and mental health services. Our current circumstances are tough enough for students to deal with. U of T shouldn’t be actively contributing to the deterioration of our mental health as well.

Drishti Jalan is a third-year political science and book and media studies student at Victoria College.