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A Virtual School Burnout

Digital Composition by Nick Parker.

November 27, 2020

By Talha Hashmani

Buckle up, we’re in it for the long run

It’s another weeknight for me, straining my eyes against the blue glare of my laptop screen. An open can of Redbull sits beside a stack of papers left carelessly on my desk. It’s my third caffeinated drink of the day and I can feel my head throbbing, begging me to go back to sleep. But I can’t. Can I? I would love to if I could.

Recently, I wrote an article on why I thought people should indulge in hustling through this pandemic. As you may have guessed, if you guessed at all, I never published the article. Why? Because a week into writing it, I realized the dilemma I was facing. I had lost the ambition to write. Online classes and offline modules exhausted my energy until the only thing I could bring myself to do was to get out of bed to make yet another cup of coffee. What I’m looking at, in fact, is a very real case of personal burnout.

You see, we all have our stresses, some more than others. At times, when I’m just staring at the words on my laptop screen (that’s how I wrote this article… true story), glazed and without a direction, I think back to what brought me to this point in my life. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve failed to create a schedule for each working day of the week or the constant stream of news that obstructs my will to become more than just a blob in a chair. Maybe I’m not the only one.

CBC news published an article on Oct. 21 about how some teens were able to adapt to the stresses they had when the pandemic first kicked in. Notably, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) cited their concerns on the mental well-being of Canadian citizens and residents in their report released back in July of this year. According to the report, Mental Health in Canada: COVID-19 and Beyond, a recent poll found that 21% of those between the ages of 18-34 increased their alcohol consumption since the start of the pandemic. The report also cites another CAMH study that found those in the most vulnerable populations to be affected by COVID-19 (resulting in symptoms of anxiety and depression) include: Women, people who have lost their jobs, people with children at home, racialized and indigenous communities, and young people.

But what about burnouts? What does that have to do with needing a clearer and better mental aptitude?

Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) coined the term burnout as an “occupational phenomenon“. They defined the term as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. According to the WHO, there are three elements to burnout:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  3. Reduced professional efficacy.

Picture lighting a cigarette. The spark that ignites the cigarette slowly consumes its contents, releasing smoke. The more smoke you inhale, the faster the cigarette depletes until, eventually, it burns out. Am I an expert on cigarettes? Maybe… maybe not.

In their report, CAMH lists five recommendations it believes would help the government support mental health initiatives and support for Canadians during this pandemic:

  1. Provide a range of mental health resources, supports, and care
  2. Support and expand virtual mental services
  3. Prioritize workplace mental health
  4. Invest in social determinants of health
  5. Commit to a public health approval to alcohol policy

Other resources for those interested in learning more about mental health initiatives can be found through the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the Canadian Mental Health Association, and Kids Help Phone.

1 Mental Health in Canada: COVID-19 and Beyond, CAMH policy advice

Maybe we’re all burned out. Maybe we’re on our way to burning out. Or maybe, like a cigarette we’re still tucked in the box waiting our turn as others around us are slowly depleted.

Student Perspectives | Burnout

A few weeks before getting to work on this article, I was racking my brain for ideas on how to best articulate the struggles that students face with a constant stream of stresses looming in the corner. Some of these stresses could be traced to the start of the pandemic including worries of yet another potential lockdown and the upheaval of any sense of normalcy in one’s life. To that end, I contacted fellow reporters and students at Ryerson’s school of journalism, Tess Stuber and Cassandra Earl. I wanted to know, beyond my limited scope of personal experiences, what others were going through. The crux of the conversation focused on the struggles of online learning and keeping up with a demanding course load.

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How do you feel about the fact that online learning could continue well into the second semester of this year?

Tess: I’m certainly not thrilled that second semester is online. I’m not surprised by it at all, I think we were all sort of expecting winter to be online with how thing’s have been going. It’s certainly disappointing. This is not the school year that any of us wanted to have and I’m super hating online school right now.

It’s really settling how much it doesn’t suit me. So I’m definitely not looking forward to another semester of this.

Cassandra: I think maybe in other programs where you do an equation and you get an answer it might be easier. But with journalism, because it’s so subjective, not being able to speak to my professors one-on-one, physically being able to get them to look at my things in real-time, [not] being able to review content together in class and group discussions it’s just… it’s not the same.

I’m not a fan of online learning simply due to the fact that a lot of learning comes from hands-on experience.

How do you feel about the fact that universities are expecting students to continue learning despite the different challenges they might face during this pandemic?

Tess: At first, I didn’t mind it. At the beginning of the semester, when everyone was talking about how much they hated Zoom classes, it hadn’t settled in for me yet. I was still thinking it was fine.

For the most part, sitting in a Zoom class doesn’t bother me that much. I guess I get Zoom fatigue if I sit for too many hours at once. My Tuesdays are super long and that’s pretty rough but as a whole, I don’t mind Zoom classes.

Online learning is not real university because I don’t have any of the social aspects that I used to have. I realized recently that it’s something that I’m missing more than I thought I would.

There’s nothing normal about this year and there’s absolutely no reason why we should be expected to advance our learning when the world is falling apart; we’re all broke, have no jobs, and most of us are living alone trying to survive a pandemic. That is no fault of the school, I’m not blaming Ryerson. But as a whole, we have decided that it’s ok to progress with school like this and clearly it’s not, because so many people are having this kind of problem.

Cassandra: I think if online learning wasn’t happening and it was in-person, I would be a lot more motivated. I think I would be a lot more engaged in my learning [and] my learning objectives would be met. Whereas right now, I don’t think they are.

What’s your daily schedule like?

Tess: I don’t have much of a schedule. I follow my Zoom schedule, when I have lectures I go to them… outside of those, I have no schedule whatsoever. I go over to my boyfriend’s house and we mostly just hang out… We do work if we feel like it.

I’ve tried really hard to build a schedule. I’m a really organized person, generally. I keep a bullet journal. I have seven thousand different calendars – it feels like it… But this year, every time I’ve tried to build a schedule for myself, I’ve abandoned it in the first few days because I just cannot sit down to focus the way I used to be able to.

Cassandra: I’ll give you my Mondays because that’s the day that I do most of my stuff. I have work in the morning and then I have classes in-between. I work for about two hours in the morning till 12 [p.m.], then I have tutorials for one of my classes from 12 to 1. Then I have work again at the same place from 1 to 4 [p.m.] and usually, after that, I try to scramble some homework [and] do work for my other job.

Are you feeling burned out? What’s the biggest reason for your burnout?

Tess: Burnout definitely came after reading week – or maybe during reading week, if you want to put it that way. Before reading week, I was trying to feel comfortable and I think at that point we were still in that ramp-up mode with our assignments. I think my burnout started after that since assignments were due the week following reading week.

That’s something that has happened in previous years, around this time. I really start to feel like the workload boils up and the burnout really starts to agitate me, causing fatigue, stress and anxiety.

Cassandra: I think that the amount of readings that I’m doing this year is insane… It’s been a lot but I have never had so many readings for journalism classes… It’s just not the same. I’m not doing the same reporting. I’m not doing the same field work. It’s frustrating.

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As the pandemic continues to affect an increasing number of people, it might seem quite hard for students and faculty members to get the help they need to continue adapting and moving forward. Ryerson University has various means in place for supporting both students and faculty members. The Centre for Student Development and Counseling, or CSDC, continues to accept students for virtual sessions that can be booked online or over the phone. Similarly, for students struggling academically and in need of support, the university’s Academic Support Centre continues to support students with online services. These services include booking an appointment with a learning strategist, registering for academic support workshops, and having access to tip sheets and handouts on skill-building that facilitates individual learning.

Faculty Stresses | Burnout

What we see in terms of online learning is that it’s rather difficult to instigate a seamless transition to virtual classes from in-person learning. And for the professors and faculty members who face the daunting task of facilitating such a transition, such pressure can build up alongside other worries caused by the pandemic.

For professors, there are a few ways to get help. Ryerson’s Employee and Family Assistance Program, or EFAP, is a program administered by Morneau Shepell (you can find out more about them here). The EFAP program is a confidential and voluntary support service that provides assistance over the phone, in person, online and through health and wellness resources. Employees and their immediate family members can gain access to confidential support services, including:

  • Managing relationships and family
  • Addressing workplace challenges
  • Addressing addictions
  • Providing legal and financial clarity
  • Focusing on individual health
  • Providing the means to achieving personal wellbeing

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