15 April 2020

"maintaining a good work-life balance is especially difficult for students"

Jacob reflects on how he's adjusting to his studies being put on hold
Mental Health

"This Coronavirus lockdown has left most of us sitting around the house all day, half asleep, waiting to go out for our daily exercise – just like our dogs.  The tables have certainly turned in my house, I’ve never seen so much enthusiasm for a March walk in Scotland.  

Last week, in the space of one email from my University, I went from being in full exam preparation to lapping up a beer while trying to do keepie-uppies with a loo roll (the world record for which is still, remarkably, unclaimed).  Having my final exams postponed until October did pose as a blessing.  It’s certainly an upgrade on some of my friends studying humanities, whose entire degrees are now determined by online assessment in June.  I thought that looking for something to do would surely be a nice change from the frenzied lifestyle of a student.  However, after my third Netflix series and second failed attempt to start learning Spanish, I realised that the next 6 months will present a challenge to maintain a good work-life balance and, ultimately, my mental health. 

“I realised that the next 6 months will present a challenge to maintain a good work-life balance and, ultimately, my mental health.”

When I was 18, I was diagnosed with arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy - a rare, life threatening, degenerative heart condition - statistically, people with cardiac conditions are three times more likely to suffer from clinically significant depression and anxiety and I am no exception to that figure.  This experience, albeit a grim one, has helped me deal with the health anxiety prompted by Covid-19 and empathise with my friends and family by sharing some of the coping mechanisms I utilised to help deal with my own mortality. 

I was a national level swimmer before my diagnosis and there is nothing that a Scottish Swimming champion has more than a growth mindset.  As an athlete they sit you in a room with a sports psychologist and together you list the race factors that you can control.  There are many; good hygiene and nutrition for example.  The exercise concludes with the one factor you can’t control – the outcome of the race.  Never has such an attitude been more applicable.    

I was playing a lot of golf and tennis before the outbreak, that’s been cut now but I’m lucky enough to have a turbo trainer in the garage and so sessions on the bike are, while a bit boring, helping me clear my head.  It’s also keeping me away from the TV, it’s so easy to spiral into panic watching updates from around the world, the hour a day I spend away from it all reminds me that the tail does not wag the dog. 


On this subject, maintaining a good work-life balance is especially difficult for students.  The entirely self-motivated nature of a degree, in tandem with mounting debt, can lead to overworking, underworking and massive burnouts.  Having my exams delayed has increased the risk of this and so I’ve decided to keep my working day to a strict 9-5pm (a more realistic 10-5 by the time I get my arse out of bed).  Filling it with as much varied work as possible, ranging from some general reading, lab reports (an exciting bonus of a physics undergraduate degree) to my role as a Movember Student Ambassador.

I’m incredibly fortunate to have a peaceful, loving family to support me during this colossal shutdown.  I have many friends who have been forced to return to difficult home lives.  The terror of a financially and now legally inescapable abode in such circumstances must have a catastrophic effect on both your mental health and your ability to prepare for exams.  Additionally, many graduates now face a climate of job insecurity at the formative years of their careers.  Some are also working for our NHS, putting the health of themselves and their families aside.       
Personally, my Grandma is 73, I lost my Grandad to cancer at the tail end of last year and I can’t comprehend how difficult it is for her to grapple against her newfound loneliness amidst an age enforced quarantine.  We’ve kept in touch by video calling her at dinner, propping my laptop against the wall as if she’s eating with us.  I hope this is helping her. 

I’ve kept in touch with my friends, as many others have, by video calling.  Alongside some online gaming and virtual pub quizzes to stave off the boredom.  While it’s not the same as meeting in person,  a clear positive of the lockdown is the number of friends I have contacted; many of who I’ve not seen for a very long time.  I think, rather Ironically, the lockdown has led to more socialising and the de- stigmatisation of video calling at all ages will leave a positive legacy.

Despite howling about the boredom of a household lockdown and all my efforts to keep busy, if I could emerge from this coronavirus pandemic having improved in one area it would be relaxation.  The free time many of us now have presents a unique opportunity to take a step back from the reality of modern life.  A chance to reflect on our achievements, our shortcomings and ultimately our own mental health.  Perhaps, instead of chasing our own tails, we should take some time to dig for ourselves – you never know what you might discover. "