Over the last year and a half, much has changed about the way schools and workplaces operate. COVID-19 has shifted the daily lives and routines of many onto Zoom or other video communication platforms. This new normal is not so new anymore, but experts say its long-term effects are starting to show, especially to university students.
According to a study published by media psychologist Jeremy N. Bailenson, reduced mobility and cognitive overload as a result of Zoom can be psychologically detrimental in various aspects, particularly for students. The burnout associated with long hours online and the lack of in-person learning and engagement is putting students about to enter the workforce at a disadvantage. Students are now struggling with mental and physical health issues brought on by Zoom fatigue, among other issues.
“I often hear fatigue from students in terms of the emotional toll the past two years have taken. It’s very difficult to put focused energy into a job search when you’re running on empty,” says Emma Hartley, a career education specialist at Ryerson’s Career and Co-op Centre. “Students have spoken to us about feeling overwhelmed by online learning and working over the past year.”
Sarah Samuel, who recently completed a graduate degree and is now entering the workforce, says she has faced health and concentration issues as a result of long hours on Zoom.
“[Zoom] gives me blistering headaches. You can’t imagine. Looking at the screen would always make me sick and nauseous. It’s really unfortunate that some people don’t understand that. I also cannot concentrate,” said Samuel.
It’s not just the fatigue and burnout that students are struggling with. Some students say they also feel as if the lack of in-person, engaging learning in the last couple of years has taken away a significant amount of substance and value from their degree, which could hinder their performance at work.
Hartley says they may have a point. “Many students have missed out on the opportunity to complete in-person experiential learning, such as co-ops, internships or part-time work. There are advantages to in-person placements such as sampling different work settings, the ability to informally network with colleagues and potentially be in a better position to be offered long-term employment.”
As a recent graduate, Samuel can attest to feeling like online learning has put her a couple steps back in her job search.
“As a master’s student, you are very much involved in events; societal events, civil events, holding meetings with officials, for instance. You make connections, you do networking at these events,” said Samuel. “After last year in March, there were no more networking opportunities. In my case specifically, I felt that there was not much chance to break into the industry when there’s not as much exposure.”
Isaiah Forrest, an early childhood studies student, has completed a significant part of his degree remotely. He believes students who have completed full degrees with no remote learning have a leg up on those who weren’t offered the same experience.
“A person that has done four years of in-class education has an upper hand to someone who doesn’t really get to experience what in-class is like,” said Forrest. “They also get one-on-one time with professors.”
While online education has affected some students looking for work after university, Hartley says that not all is lost and there is still something to be gained from this unique learning experience.
“With every major shift in work, there comes opportunity. Over the past two years, students have been able to impress employers with their agility, hone new technical skills and, for some, complete remote internships with international organizations,” said Hartley, noting the importance of continuing to conduct an organized and active job search in the post-pandemic search for employment.