The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Sunday June 4th

Column: Minimizing chronic exhaustion post-pandemic

Davis Library pictured on Oct. 17.
Buy Photos Davis Library pictured on Oct. 17.

I am operating on my third double-shot espresso of the day and it’s only 1 p.m. At the risk of sounding like one of those corny signs my mom would find at HomeGoods – coffee is life. 

Jokes aside, I struggle most days to function without an extra energy boost. My backpack typically contains a Bang Energy or two (they’re not that gross once your stomach adapts to the acidity) and ibuprofen for when my caffeine-headache rears its ugly head around noon. Despite these measures, I often find myself fighting the urge to doze off as the day progresses. 

Chronic fatigue has never been a stranger. 

In high school, I went about each day functioning like a robot. I woke at 6 a.m. for a two-mile run. I stayed busy until midnight because of homework or tennis practice or debate tournaments or community service. Though I felt drained, my lingering exhaustion was manageable. 

Then COVID-19 struck. My once-stellar work ethic began to suffer.

For the first time in my life, I struggled to complete basic tasks. Making my bed or washing my face in the morning became hard work. I scrolled through TikTok with my Zoom camera off during class. It took me hours to squeak out a single paragraph for my Common App essay or complete a one-page math worksheet for AP Statistics. 

To make matters worse, I also experienced various life-altering changes during the pandemic. My father had extramarital affairs, which marked the genesis of my parents’ contentious divorce. He unexpectedly left home and moved to another state. I attended two funerals. Several family friends contracted COVID-19 and had to be hospitalized. 

These stressful events further exacerbated my inability to function normally. 

With the help of a great therapist and time, I am finally healing. I continue, however, to endure the physical repercussions of trauma. I am tired all the time. No matter how many hours I sleep each night, I never feel refreshed. I lost my zip. I live in a chronic hazy mental state. 

My experience is not unique. This phenomenon is endemic among students at UNC, who must navigate a rigorous course load as they simultaneously attempt to heal from their own uniquely traumatizing experiences post-pandemic. 

“Youth in the United States are reporting that the biggest impact of the pandemic is on their mental health,” reports Andrea Hussong, professor and associate director of clinical psychology at UNC. Most importantly, she acknowledges how individuals belonging to marginalized groups may experience these effects disproportionally. 

Pandemic-related data concludes that the warning signs for a decline in mental health tend to present themselves physically. 

“People may also experience physical symptoms, such as tension headaches, gastrointestinal issues, the inability to relax or to sleep, nightmares, flashbacks and other symptoms,” said Psychiatry Chair Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody. 

So how do we collectively move forward? Dr. Meltzer-Brody recommends prioritizing self-care, and she urges policymakers to further invest in mental health services.

UNC needs to take proper action to minimize student and faculty burnout. Though wellness days are a step in the right direction, the University should consider giving students additional time off to rest and reset.

Recent trials done abroad suggest how transitioning to a four-day work week, or simply granting individuals more flexibility in work hours, may yield tremendous mental health benefits.

Countries such as New Zealand and Iceland, which launched trials in 2020 testing how weekly work time reduction improves employees’ mental health, model how the United States could feasibly restructure our current system as well. 

Similarly, British nonprofit groups 4 Day Week Global, 4 Day Week UK, and Autonomy recently began a four-day workweek pilot program that includes thousands of employees across 70 companies.  

These measures may seem extreme to those like myself who grew up in societies that glorify “hustle culture” – the idea that work-life balance is gratuitous and an individual should always aspire towards “more” (more money, more titles, more success). 

But desperate times call for desperate measures. In the midst of today’s mental health crisis, the University has an obligation to protect student and faculty well-being above all else. 

The pandemic undoubtedly caused immeasurable harm, but the silver lining is that it also forced us to reevaluate the status quo. As a national leader in research and innovation, UNC has the opportunity to play a crucial role in modeling a new work culture that yields better mental health outcomes for students and faculty.


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