ally with your stressed students

A male PhD student covers his face with his hands in a gesture of stress.
Photo by Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash

I guest posted here on the Supervision Whisperers’ blog a couple of weeks ago on how we might ‘design-in’ self-care strategies for doctoral students. In response a few supervisors have been in touch to ask about how they might approach a student they believe to be stressed, without making things worse.

Firstly I’d say, the important first step is to familiarise yourself with the symptoms of stress:


If you notice that your student exhibits any of these stress symptoms, can’t relax, or is indicating to you that they rarely, if ever, feel like they’re on top of things or in control, it’s probably a sign they need some support from you.

How can you support them directly in a way that doesn’t make things worse, or patronise them?

  • Time it. Choose your moment, don’t embarrass them in front of colleagues, don’t tag it on to the end of a meeting when there isn’t time to have a good quality conversation. Don’t answer the phone in the middle of it.
  • Call it. First let them know that you’ve noticed they are stressed, and, importantly, that you want to help them reduce that stress. You could say: ‘Hi, You seem a bit stressed / like you have a lot on / like you could use a break and a deep breath, can I help?’ Or ‘It’s been a stressful few weeks for you hasn’t it, lets have a debrief and see how we can make it a bit more manageable.’
  • Listen. This is really important. Listen. Just listen. Don’t just jump straight in to advice mode — people often need to vocalise a concern or a complicated issue as a way of processing it and understanding it. Don’t shut that down by shutting them up. Let them talk it out.
  • Master (or Mistress) Plan. Talking stuff through systematically may help them figure out what’s at the root of their stress feelings. Help them make a list, a map etc, that gets stuff out of their head and on to a page/screen. Look for ways to reduce what’s on their to do list right now, what can be worked around, what can be done later. Chunk it down from big picture into tangible objectives. Collaborate together on a plan, on the involves them having time to breathe, eat, sleep and relax.
  • Offer don’t impose. Ask their permission to offer them some good coping strategies. Unproductive coping strategies include things like, wishful thinking, self-blame, excessive worrying/churning things over, ignoring the problem, keeping things to yourself, working longer and longer hours, and alcohol or food abuse. Positive coping includes things like, making immediate (this week) and short-term (end of the month) goal lists rather than long-term ones, focusing on the positives, seeking help to get things done, improving relationships and friendships and taking regular time out to relax or pursue a hobby or interest.
  • Validate the plan. Make sure they know they have your permission to keep  to those reasonable working hours, to take a break, to have a holiday. Rest is important. Sustaining energy for the long game of research is critical. You are the person who needs to say this to them as they’ll believe you.

If you’ve never had this type of conversation before, then this may take them by surprise, so make sure you embed the above by following through on any promises you make, and by checking in with them after a while to see how things are going. Remember what you agreed together, you could even ask them to summarise it back in an email to you, (a) for your records, and (b) to check their understanding.

Some other things that you can do that contribute to a bigger picture culture of reducing stress are:

  • Let students drive, respect their opinion, listen to their voice. Overriding them or taking away control of decision making is likely to stress them further and make them lose trust in you.
  • Don’t talk about your own stress or workload, or how busy you are. However encouraging/empathetic you may think it will sound, what the student will hear is ‘well my problems are bigger than your problems so ner’.
  • If they are defensive about their ability to cope, or get upset about things, try and practice being ‘ok with that’ (it’s not innate, it comes with practice). Upset/defensive is a very normal reaction and it’s not about you. Reiterating that you will support them to find a way through the stress is all that’s required at this point.
  • Know your boundaries and signpost on to further university counselling or GP support services if you feel out of your depth. If you are seriously worried for the student’s safety — try your university ‘critical response team’ (synonyms exist — why not find out now who your key contact is?), or in an emergency call an ambulance.
  • Check your own stress levels and how you cope, anxiousness and stress can spread from person to person, if you’re stressed, you stress them and vice versa. be a role model of all the good practices above.
  • Set out expectations of healthy working hours early in the PhD. And let your students know what to do if they ‘don’t know what to do’.
  • Champion healthy working practices. Be wary of escalating competitive ‘busyness’. Be aware of stigma and challenge the  labelling of stressed students or staff as ‘lazy’, ‘unfocussed’, ‘needy’ or ‘poor’.

Don’t be tempted to delegate this ‘I’ve noticed…’ conversation to a ‘more sympathetic’ colleague (this type of work is often offloaded to women BTW). Your backing and support as a supervisor matters. If they feel you are both working together, and that you are an ally to them, it will make a difference to their perceptions of their situation, and their sense of support and control. And to yours too.

As always, your additions to this list are welcomed, your discussion encouraged. I hope this all makes you feel less stressed. Take care.

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