Students and stress: the new epidemic


This article is one of my six deadlines this fortnight. As you’d imagine, I write in a state of sleepless delirium, and possibly not the best mood to discuss “workload.” My blood is 80 per cent caffeine and fun is but a distant dream.

I know I am not alone in this feeling. When this wave of essays breaks, lurking behind are exams; and I predict that I’ll be swimming in swathes of anxious meltdowns, stress-tears, and mania, in a collective concoction from multiple people in every room.

Whether St Andrews’ workload is too heavy is debatable. I’d argue that, including contact hours, some subject combinations are as heavy as many Oxbridge degrees, and certain tests seem, to me, at least, ridiculous (one hundred paintings – seriously?).

Rumour has it that it is, in fact, possible to achieve highly across the board. We all know the BNOCs who keep up a 2:1 or even a 1st, whilst running several societies, writing for multiple publications, interning at the BBC and waking up at 6 every day to hit the gym, the library, or the beach for a seafront run. I assume that these multitaskers cope by coasting academically, though, and am more concerned by those who overwork solely on their degree.

I cannot conceive of how anyone completes all their reading, assignments, tutorial work, and exams to any standard of quality without sacrificing something significant. It doesn’t seem physically possible to complete all academic work without losing at least one hour of sleep, socialising, societies, exercise, or mental wellbeing.

Whilst it’s easy to curse the University, this pressure is not totally external. The amount of work that we do should be our choice. We must do the bare minimum, but beyond that, what we get from education is self-determined. We can choose modules and we can choose how much work to give each subject. We can choose how much time to dedicate to extra-curricular, social, and personal pursuits, and we can tailor our schedules accordingly.

What causes this pressure is a social epidemic which rewards working at the cost of our health (though this may be specifically a British middle class phenomenon.). The attitude is always this: do as much as you possibly can do – “as much as you can” not including the condition of “whilst being happy, well-rested, and healthy.”

Prioritising happiness is short-sighted, weak-willed, and lazy. People are embarrassed to take “Great Ideas” and almost everyone I know has a guilt complex about procrastinating. People feel guilty for sitting outside in the sun instead of working on essays or spending time with friends instead of in the library.

In overworking, on the contrary, is an unwarranted sense of pride. People boast constantly of how many hours they spend studying, and not only is this sad, it’s harmful. During sixth form I worked myself insane, to the point of clinical stress. And yet I was consistently praised for my “work ethic.” It reached a point where I was desperate for someone to just release me by giving me permission to stop, rather than continuing the encouragement.

I would even say that overworking is glorified. Elle Woods’ Harvard bound determination marks one of the greatest “feel good” moments of “Legally Blonde.” Though I appreciate the female empowerment and challenging stereotypes, I’m not sure the upbeat music montage reflects what reading all the time is really like.

I’m not criticising those who love studying.  I’m not advocating anti-intellectualism or bullying bibliophiles. I’m just challenging why those of us who don’t love what we’re doing continue to do it, to such an unhealthy extent.

What saddens me most about this attitude is that it is always in preparation for the future. It is always working towards a reward that doesn’t yet exist. What is so wrong with being happy now? Is it really so shameful to sometimes take the easier option?

I’m not saying give up or do far less than your potential allows, but this madness needs some mediating. There’s nothing wrong with working hard and feeling motivated, but it’s important to sustain balance, and at some points question how much you’re sacrificing and if it’s really worth it.


  1. Wonderful article, and much-needed!! If only people were more open with each other about how tough they’re finding things, perhaps it would be easier for us all to drop the facade of everything being fine and actually help each other take time off.

  2. Get a grip – once you hit the reality of a full time job you’ll realise what pathetic whining brats you are.


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