Realistic images of working life can reduce student stress

Increasing numbers of students are stressed and worried about their studies and working life. At a workshop on the mental health of students, stakeholders discussed strategies and solutions.

Photo credit noipornpan“We can clearly see that this isn’t just a problem for the students, it’s also a problem for universities and employers”, explained Anna Adolfsson. She and Linnea Michel are LiU students and co-initiators of the workshop that brought together students and university and workplace representatives.

Photo credit Eva Bergstedt. In the photo: Anna Adolfsson, Linnea
Michel and Fredrik Gustafsson.
Numerous studies show that stress, worry, anxiety and depression among students are on the rise.
“There are surely a number of causes. Workplace demands are high, it’s difficult to get established on the labour market, and many programmes are increasingly theoretical”, said Deputy Vice-Chancellor Roger Klinth, while presenting the latest student survey at LiU. It shows that roughly half of the students feel negative stress in their studies.
“Negative stress can be caused by too much instruction, or too little. Engineering students keep a high tempo, while some students in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Faculty of Educational Sciences say they have too little instruction, and are stressed about that.”
Taking responsibility is an important part of studies at university level. The students are expected to be responsible, like adults, Roger Klinth added.
“But where to set the standard? It’s easy to ask ‘Am I good enough?’, but no one gives you an answer, and you see less of your teachers than at upper secondary school.”

Photo credit Linda WäpplingRoger Klinth emphasised that the university takes students’ stress very seriously. Student Health has got more resources. University management and the student unions are collaborating on the matter.
“It must also be clear who the students should contact with their questions. We have to give clear information – that reduces stress.”
Roger Klinth also pointed to a gender paradox:
“Girls are more stressed, but generally perform well, while boys are more easy-going but perform worse.”

Inger Erlander Klein, senior lecturer and involved in several engineering programmes, spoke about Engineering Professionalism, a course that leads to one credit per term, over three years. Its aim is to train socially and mentally sustainable engineers. She explained:
“Students from various programme years interact, which helps enhance their social network. They get tools for managing their studies and their future working life, which reduces stress. For instance they have dialogue seminars where they write reflective texts that they read and discuss”.

Carin Höglund Kennberg works in HR at Lejonfastigheter, a local property construction and management company. She spoke about stress and worry from an employer’s perspective, and pointed out that the students don’t need to aim for the best grades and a perfect CV.
“As an employer you want someone with drive, you want to find someone who’s engaged, and has suggestions that are in line with the company’s values.”
Carin Höglund Kennberg explained that stress is contagious.
“We’re like animals in a pack. If one gets stressed, others tend to also get stressed. And at lots of places there’s a culture where it’s high status to have too much to do.”
She feels it’s important to inject what she calls self-leadership into the university programmes. Learning to not compare oneself with others, but rather to find out what works for oneself.
“Because that’s how it works later, in the workplace”, she concluded.

Several people at the workshop hoped for a more nuanced image of how things work at a workplace. At university the students mostly come in contact with high-performing individuals, at CEO level, which comes at the expense of an everyday perspective that could give the students a more realistic idea of what awaits them after graduation. Not many land their dream job right away – if ever.

The workshop was organised by the student council of IVA (the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences). The council has eleven members from the universities, including Anna Adolfsson and Linnea Michel from LiU.

Fredrik Gustafsson, professor of sensory informatics at LiU, is director of IVA Öst.
“Lots of engineering students quit their studies, and as a result, Sweden ends up with fewer engineers. So this is a problem we really need to address”, he pointed out.

Link IVA (Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences)

Translation: Martin Mirk

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