Exhausted by corona
How long can we keep this up?
‘If this goes on for much longer, I’m done’, says Heleen van Peet, lecturer at the Faculty of Economics and Business. Over the past few months, she’s had to teach several classes online, and the process has left its marks on her.
‘I’d keep waking up earlier every morning in a panic, hoping I’d get everything done. I would just have to get up and go to work; knowing I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep. It’s so exhausting. I really needed my four weeks of vacation, just to rest up.’
I woke up in a panic, hoping I’d get everything done
Eva Teuling, degree programme coordinator at FSE, more than once felt like she’d completely lost the plot. From home, she had to train two new secretaries and deal with an organisational change, which meant she had to transfer some degree programmes while others were added to her package.
She also had two young children at home. There was one blessing in disguise: her freelance husband was basically out of work, so he had time to take care of the kids.
Associate professor of art history Joost Keizer wasn’t so lucky. He and his wife, who also works, had their hands full with their three small children. ‘Work was relegated to the off hours’, he says. He often ended working deep into the night. ‘I made real progress sometimes.’
The three UG employees aren’t the only ones who’ve had a rough time of it the past six months. The Health, Safety & Sustainability department did a survey among university staff which showed that 40 percent of employees are experiencing more work stress due to the corona measures. Another 40 percent said their mental health had declined.
Whether this has led to more people calling in sick due to being burned out is unclear, says occupational and organisational expert Ton Modderman, who created the survey. ‘It’s too early to tell. But I’m certain we’ll be seeing the effects in the long term.’ He’s already seeing an increase in the number of appointments with medical officers and social workers.
Everything at once
The weeks before and after the start of the academic year were also intense. ‘Everything was happening at once and it all needed to be done immediately. It was just a lot’, says Teuling. First, all classes had to switch from being in person to being online, and now they had to be switched back. Lecturers only had a week to figure out which parts they wanted to teach in person. ‘That caused a lot of stress and agitation among many colleagues.’
Van Peet had to turn her course into an online version and redesign the entire set-up of her seminars. She also had to implement a previously planned quality improvement, using a different case and different literature.
It all worked out, but at what cost?
On top of that, at the end of the summer she found out that more students than usual had registered for her class. ‘I found out just before the course was starting. And I didn’t have enough lecturers.’ She sighs. ‘I spent pretty much every waking hour trying to assign people. We wouldn’t have been able to teach this mandatory course otherwise.’
‘I survived’, says Van Peet, looking back. ‘It all worked out, but at what cost? I’ve worked here for thirty-four years and I’ve never seen anything like this.’
She’s since recovered a little, she says. ‘Two weeks ago, when we actually got everything started, I felt this sense of relief. It felt like I could finally relax a little.’ It also helps that she can occasionally go to the office and talk to a colleague face to face.
But it’s not over yet. ‘Exams are coming up, and they’ll all have be online, too. That’s so much more work.’
Keizer spent so many hours putting his classes online, he says, that he’s had no time whatsoever for his research. Neither has Van Peet. ‘I couldn’t have focused on it anyway’, she says.
Astronomy professor Mariano Mendez has actually been doing a lot of research from home. Too much, really. Since the lockdown started, he’s only been to the Kapteyn Institute once, and that was to pick something up. Other than that, he barely leaves the house. He sees very few people other than his fifteen-year-old son, who lives with him every other week. He basically works all the time.
‘The line between work and home has completely disappeared’, the professor says. ‘One day, when my son wasn’t home, I was working on an article and taking care of all these different things. I’d started at eight thirty in the morning and I was still working at midnight.’
He realised this wasn’t healthy behaviour and he signed up for a workshop to better deal with it. Now, he tries to do other things besides work. He reads, watches Netflix, and eats three square meals a day – in front of the television rather than the computer.
Keizer says the art history department has made sure its online classes are just as high quality as the in-person ones. But, he adds, getting them there took the lecturers a lot more time than they would have spent preparing regular classes. Switching back to making all classes online again would be even worse.
He’s no fan of the board of directors’ plans to become the best online university in Europe. ‘If we’re forced to do things online because of the coronavirus, then we should try to be the best’, he says. ‘But I don’t think we should strive to be the best online university regardless of the situation.’ He does think having to switch again will be easier than the first switch was.
This affects students more than it does us
‘In-person classes are just so much more efficient’, says Van Peet. ‘No matter how hard we work, there’s always something missing. You can’t see how the students respond to your teaching.’ Students will murmur responses whenever she explains something, but their vacant expressions that denote they don’t really get it don’t really come across on the screen. Only time will tell whether something actually got through. ‘But if I’d known, I might have been able to help them get a slightly better grade.’
She understands why students are complaining about having to pay full tuition fees. ‘What we’re giving them right now is of poorer quality. But we need their money to keep everything going.’
Teuling didn’t take the criticism as well as Van Peet did, and she didn’t appreciate political party VVD’s suggestion to check up on lecturers to see if their classes were up to scratch. ‘Do they have any idea how much work it is to teach right now?’
Teuling doesn’t have anything good to say about partying students, either. ‘We worked our butts off for months to teach as many classes on campus because it’s supposed to be better for students. Only for their actions to cause everything to shut down again.’
Van Peet has more sympathy for students. ‘I feel bad for them. Here I am in my large home office, with properly working internet.’ She understands why the first- and second-years want to go out. ‘They’re young and they just don’t realise the consequences yet.’
Keizer agrees. Besides, he says: ‘This whole thing affects the students much more than it does us. It’s their future that’s at stake.’