Thursday 2 April 2020

Finding Time for your Mental Health When You’re Studying and Working

Fern shares her experience of establishing a positive work-life balance and finding ways to take time out for self-care while studying and working at university.

- Fern Francis

During my second year, I discovered that I enjoyed earning a little extra money while studying. 

Initially, my small number of timetabled contact hours coaxed me into signing up for odd jobs as a campus tour guide. I loved the flexibility that my degree course gave me when it came to picking and choosing my shifts. I even reasoned that having a little extra cash was the perfect way to pamper myself with some treats along the way! Working was a pleasant break from studying. It got me outside and talking to people, which helped to challenge my feelings of social anxiety. 

I had felt very nervous during my first year, but by my second year, I had established a good support network of friends. As the number of hours I worked grew, my confidence increased, and I began to feel much more settled at university. The more I worked, the more emails about casual work opportunities I seemed to receive, and I found myself amassing work commitments at a rapid rate. I didn’t like turning down opportunities and it felt good to be working. 

Employability after my degree weighed heavily on my mind, and I wanted to feel more confident about my chances of being able to find work after graduation. Regularly adding new skills to my CV gave me a sense of achievement and helped to alleviate my employability concerns, but within a few weeks, my friends started to comment that they never saw me at society meetings because I was always working.

At home, I found myself rushing through domestic tasks, or neglecting them completely, as I hurried from one work commitment to another. I started to rely on quick meals and felt too busy to think about maintaining a well-balanced diet. I didn’t realise the effect this was having on me until I returned home during the holidays and a concerned family member pointed out that I had lost weight. As deadlines approached, feelings of stress and anxiety began to creep in, as the amount of unfinished reading that I had been putting off from one week to the next, began to catch up with me. I started to feel overwhelmed and began sleeping badly. 

By the end of the Easter holiday, I felt as though I was no longer in control of my university work and that I was at risk of failing. I began procrastinating by taking on extra shifts and started to skip lectures to avoid extra academic work. Missing lectures left me feeling negative about my progress and I began to feel overwhelmed by everything in my day-to-day-life. 

Initially, I felt reluctant to approach university support services because I didn’t believe I could spare the time. My situation reached a critical point when I stayed up for several nights to complete an assignment I had fallen very behind on. Aware that the work I had produced was not my best, I approached my academic tutor for support and explained my situation. 

It was a difficult conversation to have at first, but through talking about the situation with someone removed from it, I was able to recognise that I had allowed my work-life balance to tip too far in one direction. My tutor was very understanding of my situation. Together with my tutor, I was able to work out how many hours I would need to complete my reading, and how many hours I actually had spare to use for part-time work and self-care. 

It took time for me to redress my work-life balance and feel in control of my university workload again, but through this journey, I have found the following tips useful: 

Plan your week in advance: 

Know how many hours you should set aside for each class and put this in your plan. Make sure to include time for self-care activities too. Household chores are important, but it’s okay to pencil in time to watch a TV show at home, or just do nothing! 

Tell your tutor or student support services when you’re starting to feel overwhelmed: 

Your tutor and support staff are there to help you and have experience supporting students through difficult situations. By approaching them early, they can assist you to put the right support in place before it becomes urgent. 

Employability is important, but it’s okay to say no to a work opportunity: 

Saying no can be very difficult, but it’s okay to decline a work opportunity to catch up with university reading or to make time for self-care. Successfully balancing a university course and outside work commitments is an excellent way to demonstrate your time-management skills to future employers! 

Keep in touch with your friends: 

Spending time with your friends is an excellent way to relax. It can also be an opportunity to talk about the things that are worrying you in a less formal setting, with people you trust who may have experienced similar feelings.

For more information and support on looking after your wellbeing at university, click here.

I'm Fern, I am a recent graduate in History and Archaeology at the University of Southampton. I currently work in student support services. In 2020/21, I hope to resume a Postgraduate course in Biomedical Egyptology at the University of Manchester.

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