What to do about stress

Students and employees sometimes experience high levels of stress. Should TU Delft be held responsible and take action? During the Delta debate on the increasing pressure last Tuesday 5 June, a panel of TU Delft representatives tried to find some answers.

Ali Haseltalab, Paula Meesters, Rob Mudde and Jorino van Rhijn discuss stress in Delft. (Photo: Annemijn Smid)

TU Delft sets high standards for both students and employees. Students have weekly deadlines and PhD students are expected to publish scientific articles. Society has high expectations as well and many students want to engage in extracurricular activities. Students and employees are caught in the middle of what family, friends, society, the university and they themselves expect. Stress, overworked employees and even burnouts are sometimes the results.  

According to panel member Rob Mudde, Vice-Rector Magnificus and Vice-Chair of the Executive Board, it is too simple to just blame the organisation. He thinks that making explicit choices on what to do and what to drop is the best way to reduce stress. The crucial step is to understand that the individual can make choices, regardless of what society expects. “Nobody says you should go to university or be part of a dream team. That is your own choice,” Mudde said. In his opinion, reflecting on the expected standards is an excellent way to put things into perspective.  

“Mudde’s statements imply that the individual is responsible for handling stress,” said Jorino van Rhijn, President of the VSSD students’ union. “But some incentives can be so strong that they undermine the freedom of choice, and university requirements such as the BSA, put students under pressure. Students are not free to choose but are expected to achieve certain goals.” According to Van Rhijn, the university should take responsibility to create a free environment and to keep high expectations in check.

Prevention, reflection and cooperation

The 35 students and employees in the audience agreed that TU Delft is partly responsible for creating pressure. “I feel stress because I have to fulfil the requirements of the university over which I have no control,” said a teacher. “To me, stress is not related to choices that I make myself.” 

Meanwhile, there is a global trend towards ever higher standards, said panel member and PhD student Ali Hasseltalab. He stated that for universities to be financially profitable, students are put under pressure to generate more and better results. These rising standards go hand in hand with higher expectations from society and the university. Hasseltalab fears that the freedom of choice is being curtailed due to decreasing academic freedom. He believes that university policymakers need to look at the causes of excessive workloads and take concrete action.

In contrast, panel member and TU Delft psychologist Paula Meesters believes that we impose most expectations on ourselves. According to Meesters, the best solution is to stay away from setting too high standards and to learn to cope with failure. And should stress levels become too high, the university will provide support.

In the end, there was consensus that responsibility should be shared between the university as well as students and employees. Students have lots of expectations and high ambitions, and they themselves are responsible for not setting their standards excessively high. On the other hand, the university should make tools available that can help relieve stress for students and employees. In other words, the solution might be found in prevention, reflection and cooperation.

Check out our video about stress on campus