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The new "normal" of online teaching: How stressful has it really been?

Author: Professor Joan Ballantine, Ulster University

Published: 21 Apr 2021

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Discussing the stress involved in online learning and what this means for our well-being.

It has now been officially more than one year since the first lockdowns around the world were imposed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, a number of countries, including the UK, have come in and out of lockdown on a number of occasions. As a result, significant proportions of the workforce have been required to work from home over the past year and adjust to the ‘new normal’, namely homeworking. Homeworking has brought with it a number of challenges, including difficulties with balancing work commitments and home schooling, issues with maintaining an appropriate work life balance, and having access to an appropriate physical ‘homework space’. However, perhaps an even bigger challenge that has surfaced as a result of homeworking is that of managing employee stress and well-being.

Recognising the potential for stress to negatively impact on employees, the ICAEW has published a five-part series1 which has illustrated how the shift to homeworking has impacted on chartered accountants and their businesses. In the third part of this series, the issue of mental health is specifically addressed in the context of a ‘lack of ‘real life’’. The Big 4 have also recognised the importance of addressing employee stress and well-being. For example, Deloitte have produced a number of podcasts on managing stress as part of a WorkWell initiative2 while PWC’s boss Kevin Ellis has recently argued that mental health issues among staff is one of the major concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic3.

The university sector has equally felt the brunt of the significant disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time in the vast majority of cases, students enrolled on and academic staff delivering accounting programmes around the world have had to adjust to an online learning environment. This undoubtedly has been a challenging experience for students and academic staff alike. So what do we know about the online teaching experience and the implications for stress and well-being within the university sector?

PWC, in a recent research report4, found that student mental well-being across universities is a top risk for universities due to COVID-19. More specifically, in one of the most comprehensive accounts to date, Sangster, Stoner and Flood (2020)5 provide a detailed account of the issues which accounting staff from 45 different countries encountered as a result of the move to online instruction. Stress, well-being and mental health issues were identified as some of the most significant problems reported, both for academics and students alike, this being a consistent theme across countries. From an academic perspective, poor work life balance, a significant increase in workload, managing home schooling and burnout were just some of the issues which contributed to high levels of stress. Stress among students was also identified as an issue, with contributing factors including increased workloads, isolation from the university community, changes in assessment, and digital poverty. Both accounting academics and students also highlighted increased levels of stress as a result of technological challenges, including variable internet access and lack of computer access. Worryingly, the reflections reported by Sangster, Stoner and Flood (2020) suggest that stress among students has negatively impacted their engagement with the learning process. While stress levels in the area of university accounting have undoubtedly increased over the last year, it is reassuring to note that support has been provided to students in a number of areas, including the provision of computers and affordable internet access, adopting flipped learning to encourage engagement and the adaptation of assessment, albeit within the constraints of professional accountancy accreditation. It is also reassuring to note that university bodies such as Universities UK have provided guidance to support mentally healthy universities6, including the production of self-assessment toolkits7.

As we move into the next year of homeworking and online learning, some are already questioning if we are ‘running out of stream in the ‘new normal’'8. Indeed, it has been argued by some that ‘virtual fatigue’ was real even in the early days and is something that has to be actively managed9. Going forward, the challenge for university accounting staff and students alike will be to ensure that stress and mental health issues do not become the ‘new normal’, but rather that both draw on their resilience to endure the online teaching experience until it is safe to commence face to face teaching again.

*The views expressed are the author’s and not ICAEW’s.

1 https://www.icaew.com/technical/business-and-management/leadership-personal-development-and-hr/remote-working
2 https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/workwell-covid19-podcast-managing-stress-anxiety.html
3 https://www.standard.co.uk/business/pwc-boss-kevin-ellis-says-mental-health-issues-among-staff-is-one-of-his-biggest-concerns-about-covid-lockdown-b60979.html
4 https://www.pwc.co.uk/press-room/press-releases/student-mental-wellbeing-is-a-top-risk-for-universities-due-to-c.html
5 Sangster, A., Stoner, G., and Flood, B. (2000), “Insights into accounting education in a COVID-19 world”, Accounting Education, 29(5), pp.431-462
6 https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Pages/stepchange-mhu.aspx
7 https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Documents/2020/uuk-self-assessment-tool-stepchange.pdf
8 https://www.icaew.com/insights/viewpoints-on-the-news/2020/oct-2020/mental-health-are-we-running-out-of-steam-in-the-new-normal
9 Guardian, “Zoomed out: how can we politely tell people we’d rather not chat?”, 16 April 2020, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/apr/16/zoomed-out-how-can-we-politely-tell-people-wed-rather-not-chat