Last Saturday, I woke up at 7:30, an alarm set to ensure I had time to study before my shift began. After a 30 minute commute, I worked for eight hours, studying for exams on my breaks. I ended my day with a date, but the night ended quickly when a popped melatonin let me fall asleep at 9:30 P.M.. The next alarm was at 5:00 A.M.. I couldn’t manage another eight-hour shift without the failed attempt to get a good night’s sleep.
On days like this — a cycle of study-work-limited social time-sleep—I think about how insignificant my acts of self-care on a daily basis are. Moments of “self-care” feel more like ticking off a box of to-do’s, all of which feel more like self-care to ignore. After all, a skipped shower or a neglected hobby is a rare moment to lay down.
According to recent statistics, around 43% of full-time and 81% of part-time college students work on top of their busy class schedule. These students are 20% less likely to receive degrees. Interestingly, the amount of hours worked does not significantly change this number. Even part-time students struggle to graduate.
Financial difficulties undoubtedly contribute to this disparity. With costs of college tuition rising and the economy becoming more and more broken, college students’ financial anxieties are higher than ever. But the stress that comes with working while being a student leads to these drop-out rates as well. Any student who works can empathize with those who break under pressure. We all need money to live, and we don’t necessarily need a degree. If we have to choose one for our own sanity, why wouldn’t we sacrifice something so costly and draining?
Oftentimes, it feels like institutions rub student-workers’ busy schedules in their faces. Many colleges hold frequent “self-care” workshops, like mindful origami or painting rocks with positive messages on them. These groups are scheduled at set times and often infrequently. But what about the exams students constantly have to study for? What about the long, tiring shifts?
These well-intentioned workshops do little to provide for students who are not already privileged with open schedules. To many, after a long day of class and work, going to these groups is the last thing that a person can fathom. Again, we are meant to choose the luxury of rest over fun activities that could cheer us up — if our work schedules even give us the chance to go to them.
The reality is, the college and work environment itself is inherently hostile to self-care. Basic acts of self-care become impossible. Student workers can no longer be expected to choose self-care; we must be offered it.
There is a massive difference. To choose self-care is to carve out time in impossibly busy schedules, to ask for less hours from your boss only to be greeted with more, to be mocked when you see you have work during your school’s meditation workshop. To be offered self-care requires employers and institutions to truly consider the unique position of a student worker and to not only offer accommodations, but mandate them.
The onus is on those above us. This requires a radical restructuring of both the college and work environment. The more progressive mental health norms of some institutions are not enough. These norms are merely bandaids on deep wounds. When 87% of students cite academics as their greatest source of stress — these numbers being higher in racial minorities and nonbinary students and when 77% of employees say they have experienced burnout, the problem is the system.
This restructuring involves active involvement and compassion for students’ unique position from employers and institutions. Fostering a kind, personal environment with the wellbeing of its student workers truly in mind can chip away at the mountain of stress we experience.
Employers have a responsibility to remember their student employees and check in on them, creating schedules with them collaboratively in order to consider the changes in their week-to-week workload. They should ask them the best ways to support their mental wellbeing and follow through. Workplace stress should actively be minimized and managers should be trained to prioritize their subordinates.
From academic institutions, standards should be placed upon professors and other campus leaders that support student workers every step of the way. Self-care is an uphill battle for student workers, and devoting time for it should be a valid excuse for a class absence or paper extension. That alone will correlate to higher grades and better wellbeing for all students.
Furthermore, when assigning exams, professors should be extremely mindful of the hours students spend in class, at work or studying for the exam. These three endeavors can take up the whole of one’s day. Assigning extensive homework and projects at the same time as exams leaves no time for rest, inevitably leading to lower performance. These accommodations do not forgive student laziness; they celebrate students’ humanity and delicate need for peace.
Lastly, employers and professors should collaborate to find solutions that best help student workers. While this would be impossible to do on a personal basis between each student’s professor and employer, it can be done at a grander scale to impose new standards that let student employees thrive.
The necessity of self-care is not an idea often explored by institutions or employers, but more creative solutions can be easily found if it were. Overall, the attitudes we hold about self-care have to be reframed. It is not an afterthought; it is the thing that keeps us alive.
Maybe this is a pipe dream, but I do not want to think that something better is impossible. I do not want the numbers of struggling dropouts to remain so high. I have hope, and it helps me persevere through each moment of relentless burnout. No matter what, I refuse to let go.