Stress levels skyrocket for students, staff, and faculty


Rebecca Flieder

Rising stress levels from students, faculty and staff have prompted conversations about mitigation and prevention.

This is the first installment of our series on campus-wide stress, focusing primarily on workload.
In an anonymous survey given to students by Basement Medicine, one question asked them to compare this semester’s workload and stress level to previous semesters. “The workflow is unspeakable and all over the place,” said one response. Said another, “It’s hard to focus on the computer for so long.”
Words like “challenging” “difficult” and “impossible” were used several times. Students were asked to rate their stress levels this semester, showing an average of 7.7 out of 10 for 36 responses.
Then, during conversations with nearly 50 faculty, staff, administrators and students, a trend appeared. All suggested that their stress levels were through the roof, citing causes such as increased workloads, Zoom and screen fatigue, social isolation, pandemic anxiety, political tension and VSCS tension.
Is it the Workload?
The survey paints a startling picture of student stress levels. Given the responses, it seems that students feel most anxious about the amount of work required.
“The workload is the same,” said one, “but there are fewer resources available.” A second added, “I’m used to challenges regarding a balance between school and socializing. This semester, it’s more that I’m having difficulty making time for things that make me happy, since I am balancing full time college, and working full time as well.”
A third: “It’s hard to focus on the computer for so long, and class work load is about the same as before, which seems impossible now with an unstable WiFi connection and uncommunicative teachers.”
Another still: “I find myself constantly behind due to not know[ing] what to do.”
Students who were interviewed non-anonymously agreed with these sentiments.
Junior Marcus Allen said, “I don’t know how I feel about my course load. I suppose stressed is really the only word for it. As a student with learning disabilities I find it incredibly hard to focus during a zoom class or just doing all of my work from my room.”
Junior psychology major Amanda Rosalbo said, “Online classes are for sure exhausting. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not all bad! Being able to wake up in the morning, eat breakfast, then log onto class still wearing my pajama pants is pretty nice. Yet, Zoom is much different than connecting in person and I find myself really missing the personal connections I get from in person classes.”
Junior studio art and theater double major Amber Follansbee said, “The work load is slightly lower compared to if this would be a normal semester. However, due to most classes being online or in hybrid it feels like it is much more work than normal.” Follansbee also cited single-dorm living as a factor, as she felt losing track of time and schedule was more of an issue without a roommate.
Both Allen and another student, Psychology major Ely Berry, suggested that their workload had drastically increased. “My workload is more intense this semester than it is compared to other semesters. I think more reading/studying is required to get the same education out of less contact,” said Berry.
Senior childhood ed major Bridget Regels agreed with Berry’s assertion. “Coursework that would normally be completed is now assigned as homework, so my course load is almost double what it was during past semesters.”
Allen wrote, “All of my classes have several assignments and readings in a week, whereas past semesters most [o]f the work I did was in class.”
Follansbee wrote, “Stress levels are higher. It feels like teachers are less available than normal. For example, in my advanced digital animation class, we are fully remote. Class work, for me, needs to be done entirely in the lab, and it hasn’t been easy emailing my professor my questions, or looking up tutorials online. It essentially feels like figuring out a new program on my own.”
Professors and admin in the same boat
Students’ stresses are directly mirrored by those of their professors, whose responses to a similar survey show that they are also being plagued by exhaustion.
Math department Chair and professor Julie Theoret wrote in an email to Basement Medicine, “I won’t lie – this is the most stressed I have ever been in my entire life. It isn’t fun. All of this is happening at the same time that we are all putting in extraordinary amounts of effort to make sure we do right by our students. It is exhausting.”  She added that she was struggling with balancing empathy and availability with maintaining reasonable standards and expectations for students.
Professors Daniel Towner and Emily Tarleton spoke about new administrative duties on top of their teaching responsibilities, and humanities department Chair and professor David Plazek wrote that “teaching synchronously, hybrid, or on-line adds to the work.”
Environmental and health sciences Co-Chair and professor Brad Moskowitz also wrote, “My additional duties are more plentiful than I would prefer.”
Associate Professor of Education Kathleen Brinegar said, “My course load is typical, and I’m managing, but my course prep takes at least three times as long per course each week. Everything I would normally be able to say to students in-person needs to be written down in multiple places so that’s its accessible to students regardless of how they are able to participate, and that takes time.”
When asked how difficult this semester was, she wrote that it was the same “on paper… In practice, this semester is much harder.”
Even administrators are feeling the push of more work. Thomas Anderson, NVU associate dean of academics, confessed his exhaustion.
“It’s been a lot,” he said. “I also think that when you have a job in administration, there is never an end to the work in sight. You could work 100 hours a week every week and there’s still more to do. It’s just what it is. A lot of people in administration are working nights, weekends, and everything just because, well, you have to. I canceled my vacation this summer. It would have been a stay-cation, but the workload was just too high.”
Pedagogically documented
Despite professors’ best efforts to convert their classes to online or remote delivery, there may be another factor at play.
David McGough, professor of education, suggested that the workload issue may already be pedagogically documented.
“You might be seeing a classic problem that is well-known in the world of online education,” he said in an email. “When instructors move a classroom-based course to an online environment, the workload becomes overwhelming for both the instructor and the students. In the world of online education, instruction and curriculum are supposed to operate differently. The expert designers refer to this method as e-learning. There is plenty of study and research to support the switch in modality. It is supposed to be more student-centered, pushing the instructor toward being a curator.”
McGough added that while instructors were enrolled in courses to teach them to move their existing classes to Canvas, it did not teach them the pedagogy of “e-learning.”
In an email to Basement Medicine, Anderson added that these courses were more about foundationally “developing and delivering online courses.”
Another option was a “self-paced, 5-module course to orient faculty for setting up and delivering courses via Canvas,” designed by Amy Beattie, NVU’s online services coordinator. “This course does not go into depth about online pedagogy but is excellent for learning the basic tools and features of Canvas for online course delivery,” he added.
“There are many factors at play right now,” McGough wrote. “One is simply cognitive load: with so much stress and so many anti-social rules, the brain is using a huge amount of energy just to get through the day. All academic attention must feel overwhelming.”
Associate Professor of Behavioral Sciences Leslie Johnson wrote, “I would make an educated assumption that the lack of routines that many students are facing is adding to the stress that they are experiencing. College is a very stressful experience, in general, but that stress is sometimes managed by the rhythm of the semester where people regularly attend class. When you attend class, it can sometimes feel like you’re not doing much (e.g., sitting in class, listening to a lecture, chatting about the topic) but, in reality, that’s important learning. When that component of the process is removed and replaced with other activities (e.g., discussion boards, supplemental assignments, reading) these tasks might be perceived as more work when, in fact, it’s just different work. Either way, change or difference, is stressful for people.”
So… what do we do?
Wellness Center director Kate McCarthy is trying to push the Center’s services out to students in hopes they might benefit from counseling and talk therapy. “The Wellness Center remains more committed than ever to supporting our new and returning students during these challenging times,” she wrote. “We recognize that students may be struggling right now with anxiety, grief, sadness, confusion, loneliness and other difficulties in the midst of navigating a global health pandemic, financial hardships, increased social disconnection and continued racial injustice. Whatever struggles you may be experiencing, and regardless of how and from where you are learning this semester, the Wellness Center is here to support you.”
Drop-in appointments are available through: on Mondays and Wednesdays 11:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m.- 3:00 p.m., as well as on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 11:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.
Other work being done
Aimee Pascale, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at NVU, has already started work to change the way courses are delivered by engaging students and faculty in important conversations. In an email to Basement Medicine, Pascale emphasized that the CTL is looking to implement more professional development for faculty to mitigate the stress levels of all involved.
“This work should involve input from and discussions with students, support staff, and faculty groups,” she said. “We want to plan and approach this with well thought out and focused objectives.”
Those objectives for upcoming conversations include informing faculty of the problem, reflecting on teaching and student learning changes, and brainstorming what might be done.
“We intend to connect with other representative groups once we iron out an action plan,” she wrote.