By: Hailey Findlay
In my first year of university, I developed my first addiction: coffee.
It wasn’t so much that I liked the taste. What I really latched onto was more the wide-eyed, jittery energy. If I scheduled my cups just right, I could avoid getting too sick from the seven cups a day that pushed me through a full day of class followed by a six-hour work shift (topped off with a study session ending at 4 a.m. of course) only to begin it all again the next morning with a fresh cup of joe.
I chose this vicious cycle, and so many other students choose negative cycles of their own. It might be like mine, a caffeinated cycle in which students knowingly degrade their own health, desperate to keep up the ever-fleeting “work-life balance.” Or it can be a cycle of loans, stealing money from their future in an effort to graduate and find a decent-paying post-grad job.
Over and over, adults remind me that my unlimited energy as a young person will help me persevere, saying things like “ahhh, I remember those days, you’ll get through it” or “this is just what you do in university.” So I duck my head and drink some more coffee as I open my laptop and continue the cycle of trading my health for grades.
When people first learn about my schedule, one of the most frequent responses is praise: “Wow, you’re such a hard worker!” or the joking “Wow, you’re basically Superwoman!” In first and second year, these comments helped me justify my workaholism. That’s what got me hospitalized for two days, pumped full of fluids after passing out in an evening tutorial.
Since then, while hoping to see change, I’ve noticed that the glorification of overworking is only worsening, particularly in universities. The idea that students have unlimited energy thanks to their youth is an terrible myth. Superficially, it seems accurate; many of us can and do pull all-nighters on a regular basis. But to exhibit the energy needed for that, we trade away our physical and mental health.
There’s another response I hear often: it goes along the lines of, “Just don’t work so much! Have you tried getting a bursary?”
Of course I’ve tried! Bursaries are given to those who have “demonstrated financial need” as assessed by SFU. What does that mean?
“Level of need” is based on a few factors, including how much your parents make (but not whether they help you or not). Additionally, when filling out a bursary application, they determine how much money you make based on your tax return from the year prior. So if, like me, someone decides to overwork themselves in their first year of university, their tax return will reflect this, meaning they won’t be seen as “demonstrating financial need” and will be denied a bursary. Therefore, they will need to keep working an unsustainable amount or take out a loan.
My frustrating experience has taught me many things. For starters, it has taught me that those Instagram health gurus are right when they say that stress directly influences your health. I have learned that coffee should not be treated as a main food group (no matter how much I think I need the caffeine).
My experience has also formed my opinion that the bursary process needs to be revised. Overworking needs to stop being glorified and seen as an ideal. No student should have to work themselves to the bone, or to the point of hospitalization, to be able to have money to attend school.
Between maintaining competitive grades and funding their own tuition or housing, the pressure placed on students creates inequity. This is particularly true in courses where grades are given on a bell curve, pitting students with vastly different levels of funding, and therefore different amounts of time they can allot to studying, against each other.
Is it too much to ask to not have to overwork myself to the detriment of my health and be told that it is “all part of the university experience?” I’m too exhausted to be a workaholic anymore.
Changing my workaholic tendencies hasn’t been easy and I still have moments (or weeks) where I fall back into old habits. Sometimes, I have trouble making sure I don’t take on too much, but I have realized that I don’t have to take on everything by myself. If you are like me, just remember that there are always people around you who want you to succeed and who are there for you if you need help. I am lucky enough to have a wonderful partner who cooks for me when I am too busy to remember to feed myself, and I have an awesome manager at work who helps me prioritize school by giving me flexible hours.
If you find yourself getting overwhelmed or overworked, reach out to those around you and never be afraid to ask for help. Just always remember to pay it forward.