Loneliness among international staff members

(10-12-2020) Many newly-arrived international researchers experience a sense of isolation due to the corona measures. After a series of interviews detailing their experiences, we find out what we can do about this together.

De Nederlandse versie

The corona measures allow everyone a minimum level of social contact: at first you had your bubble, now that’s been replaced with your immediate family and your cuddle buddy. This is necessary to maintain your mental wellbeing. But, ever since code red has come into force at Ghent University and Belgium went back into lockdown, it has become quite a challenge for newly-arrived international researchers to avoid becoming isolated in Ghent. If everyone stays in their kot, how are your supposed to develop the social network you need to function normally?

Nel Grillaert (DPO) and Adinda Dujardin (Trustpunt) shed some light on the problem of loneliness facing PhDs and offer some strategies on how to cope with the problem. After this, a couple of PhD students talk about their experiences during their first weeks in Ghent under lockdown.

Nel Grillaert and Adinda Dujardin talk about the issue

  • Nel Grillaert is a career coach with DPO, helping people with their career development.
  • Adinda Dujardin is a counselor at Trustpunt and a point of contact for people who want to talk about mental wellbeing issues.

What made you notice that there were problems regarding mental wellbeing among doctoral students and postdocs? What were those problems?

Nel – I started noticing that many people were losing their motivation to work during the course of my work as a career coach. They get up in the morning and they don’t feel like sitting down in front of their computer. They no longer feel any connection with their colleagues and their supervisors. There’s far less spontaneous feedback going on, so people often have the feeling like they no longer know if they’re doing well or not. They feel like they’re basically just going through the motions.

Adinda – At Trustpunt we started seeing signs that there was an increase in feelings of loneliness among international employees. Prior to the start of the corona pandemic our experience is that integration often is the biggest challenge for this group: besides starting a new job, you have to get used to a new, unknown environment in which, usually, you haven’t been able to get to know anyone (yet). So, building a social network, both professionally and personally, is crucial. Moreover, while doing this, you often have to learn how to bridge certain cultural differences. In summary, getting started at Ghent University as an international employee can be a challenge at the best of times. But right now, we see that the lockdown has made this process more difficult and this results us often hearing that people feel lonely. Some researchers indicate that they literally spend months at a time not seeing anyone. The lockdown has caused an exacerbation of these types of problems.

Besides this, we have also received many indications from supervisors and other employees that they are worried about the international employees in their team. Often, people are unsure about how to deal with someone they know who is in a negative situation, such as isolation. (Adinda Dujardin)

What are the causes for this decline in (mental) wellbeing among international doctoral students and postdocs?

Adinda – The constant telework effects everyone. We’ve noticed that many people are less and less able to draw energy from so-called energy sources such as social contacts, hobbies or activities. These energy sources normally are available both at work and in your personal environment. Yet, these sources have come under pressure in both domains. If you are someone who, for example, draws your energy from chatting to or going out for lunch with someone and this has been made impossible for you by the measures because everything is now digital, this has consequences for your energy levels. It becomes more difficult to recharge. Coffee breaks, having sandwiches together or just running into a colleague in the hallway, all those things are no longer part of our daily reality. It’s already quite a challenge for international employees to look for and find energy sources in a new city in normal circumstances, but in these extraordinary times that challenge has undoubtedly doubled.

Nel – People also feel like all they do is work. All the rest (hobbies, social contact) has shrunk to the background. The measures have made it very easy to get trapped in a vicious cycle because you run the risk that your reality becomes narrower – this is especially true for single men and women such as many of our PhD students. They have no one to discuss their day with upon returning home and trying the same thing digitally always falls far short of the real thing, especially if you’re new! This sometimes results in insecurity and performance anxiety, which makes it difficult to put things in perspective.

Also, a lot of people wouldn’t even consider sharing these types of feelings with their supervisor because nobody wants to run the risk of creating the impression that they’re not doing well. This leads to them ending up in a position of isolation, with all its obvious consequences. (Nel Grillaert)

How did this come to the attention of Ghent University?

Adinda – The most important reason is that a number of Ghent University services, independently of each other, came to the conclusion that there was a problem. Trustpunt, DPO, the Doctoral Schools and also the faculties themselves noticed an increase in the number of complaints or cases that had to do with the problem of loneliness among international employees. There are some initiatives to deal with this problem among students already, so it wasn’t a big step to do the same for international employees and start a project group involving several Ghent University services.

What solutions does Ghent University offer to deal with these problems? What can PhDs/postdocs do themselves?

Adinda – Our project group created a webpage that offers an overview of the organizations that are run by and for international PhD researchers or international employees in Ghent more broadly. They organize activities and offer possibilities to expand your social network and meet peers, also during the lockdown. So be sure to contact them! Establishing friendly relationships with others is tantamount to ensuring a continued mental wellbeing, especially during lockdown.

Moreover, many faculties are also organizing activities to allow new arrivals to come into contact with other employees and students. An overview of these activities is available on the page.

Unfortunately, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions regarding other steps you can take yourself. Something I often notice is that people develop a kind of tunnel-vision due to stress, which causes them to no longer see the available possibilities to be able to cope with the situation. In stressful situations, people tend to draw from what they know. But those tried-and-true coping strategies simply aren’t always applicable in the current situation. For example, it can become much harder to think of ways to maintain social contacts, such as for example digitally or outside during a walk.

Focusing on what’s no longer possible due to the lockdown won’t help you feel better. Try to focus on what is possible. Make sure you take time to relax and to go outside enough. It can be easier to decide to just stay indoors during the winter but try to get out regardless.

And if you notice that you really miss social contact, try and organize it in way that isn’t in conflict with the measures. Sure, it won’t be the same thing as before, but it is without a shadow of doubt better than nothing at all. Contact your colleagues, friends or family and plan a video-call. Or take them out for a walk (you can move around in groups of 4), that’ll ensure that both your social and your exercise needs will be met.

Nel – Most importantly, don’t be afraid to initiate contact. Don’t overthink it: nothing ventured, nothing gained. Take that first step by contacting a colleague or a friend.

Do you have any advice for other employees – supervisors in particular – who want to help PhDs or postdocs during these difficult times?

Adinda – Supervisors, keep in touch with your doctoral students! Ask them what you can do for them. Dare to take the initiative to show them that no subject is taboo. That really is all there is to it. An informal cup of coffee over Teams in the morning, a brief check-in or just asking how someone’s doing can make all the difference. It’s alright to talk to each other about the impact that corona has on your wellbeing. A small gesture like that can mean the world to an international employee and can show them that they are very much part of a group.

Nel – And to our other colleagues I would simply ask that they start a conversation with their international peers. Encourage it in others and try it out yourself. Don’t wait for them to take the initiative.

Ngoc Lan NguyenNgoc Lan Nguyen - Vietnam

  • Hanoi, Red River Delta, Vietnam
  • PhD student at the Department of Electromechanical, Systems and Metal Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Architecture
  • Arrived on 3rd of November

Is there a lockdown in Vietnam?

No, the government took very strict measures early on, so the infection rate has been incredibly low since April. Corona’s not really a major problem anymore. A lot of memories came back to me though, when I arrived in Ghent during lockdown.

Were you perhaps a bit apprehensive about coming here?

I got the confirmation that I was going to be able to come here to do a PhD in September, when there was no lockdown in Belgium and everything looked like it was going to get better, remember? But then after I got the visa, my supervisor let me know that Belgium had gone into lockdown. Too late now, I thought, I already had my visa! No, I’m joking, I’m glad to be here.

Luckily, the lockdown right now is not too extreme: you can still go outside and the stores are open. I work at home most of the time but I try to go out for a walk in the evening because Ghent is such a lovely town. Apart from that, there’s really not much to do. (Ngoc Lan Nguyen)

Did you know anyone here before you came?

No, I didn’t know anyone. The sad thing about the lockdown measures is that I haven’t been able to meet anyone. I’ve spent most of my time in my apartment, except to go out for food or for a walk. Normally, I’d try talking to new people, maybe start a conversation on one of my walks, but the mask really makes it difficult to get strangers to open up.

It’s the same with the university because all the meetings with my colleagues are online. I haven’t physically met any of them because our lab is still closed.

How are you feeling now?

I’m both a bit lonely and enjoying my time alone. It’s a mixed feeling because I miss talking to people in person. Of course, I talk to my loved ones at home over skype every day. But it’s really not the same thing. I’d love to meet some new people and make some friends. But I think it’s important to focus on the fact that this situation is only temporary. I’m going to be here for a while and things will eventually get better.

What should PhDs know before coming here?

Be prepared mentally and physically. Bring a lot of facemasks and disinfectant gel, but above all be prepared to spend a lot of time on your own. There’s a huge difference between spending a lockdown by yourself instead of with your family. Be prepared for it!

David Gleerup - DenmarkDavid Gleerup

  • Copenhagen, Denmark
  • PhD student at the Department of Morphology, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine
  • Arrived on 14th of October

Were you hesitant to come to Belgium due to corona?

No, not really. Being able to come here to do my PhD was a great opportunity for me, so in fact I wasn’t at all hesitant. I was able to organize everything before I arrived, housing was all taken care of. I just had to sign the papers and I was in.

How do you spend your time now?

I had planned to come here two weeks before my PhD officially started so I could do some traveling, see the coast and the Ardennes. But the lockdown started pretty much when I arrived, so I just stayed indoors. It’s no fun travelling if you can’t sit down to have something to eat or stay the night anywhere. But I’m ok, I’m not completely isolated because my girlfriend came with me.

She’s from Denmark too?

Yes, she recently started an internship at Ghent University as well.

Have you been able to get to know people?

I’ve briefly met the other PhD students in my department but, since we’re only allowed to come to the labs if we have work that can only be done at a lab, I haven’t really spent any time with them. Most of the work that my research requires right now is theoretical, so I can pretty much do all of it at home. This means I don’t really know what other people’s experience has been like compared to mine. It’s difficult to ask people you don’t know to just have a casual conversation over Skype.

You still sound very positive.

That’s because I am. I’m very driven to get my PhD, so I would’ve come to Ghent either way. Even if I had come here completely alone and become isolated and depressed, it would still have been worth it!

You think you’d be depressed right now if your girlfriend hadn’t come with you?

Oh, without a doubt! (Laughs)

Has your supervisor been helpful?

He’s been very helpful. I think that, if any problems would arise or if I’d feel isolated and depressed, I could definitely reach out to him. Also, the buddy system that the Doctoral Schools organize is very helpful. They assign you a peer who’s been here for a while to guide you in the beginning. The girl that was assigned to me has been great!

If I need to know anything, I just send her a message and she sorts me out. She’s been really helpful. It wouldn’t feel right to ask my supervisor or someone in central administration for just any old thing, I don’t want to bug them with my dumb questions.

The buddy system allows me to ask a peer for those things and not feel like I’m imposing. It’s really my main source of information regarding the University. (David Gleerup)

Do you stay in contact with family and friends?

Yes, quite a bit. I have a stepdad who’s going through some serious health issues right now, so I’m glad that I get to talk to him a lot. In fact, that’s the only negative thing about me being here: not being able to spend time with him. Being able to talk to someone and seeing their face makes a big difference for me, so video-calling is definitely better than nothing.

Elaheh Hasan Nataj NiaziElaheh Hasan Nataj Niazi - Iran

  • Amol, Mazandaran Province, Iran
  • PhD student at the Department of Animal Sciences and Aquatic Ecology, Faculty of Bioscience Engineering
  • Arrived on 4th of November

How have the first few weeks in Ghent been for you?

People have been really kind to me since I arrived here. The University made sure I had everything I needed. The only thing I miss is a bit more hustle and bustle in the student home where I live because things are very quiet now. I completely understand why the lockdown measures are in place, but I think it has meant that a lot of new PhD students maybe have postponed coming to Belgium. There are only a few students here now. I hope more will arrive soon.

Have you met your colleagues yet?

Yes, we’ve briefly met each other in the offices of the lab. I hope I’ll be able to spend more time with them when the lockdown finishes. But until then, I’ll be doing all my work from home like I have been for the last month. The lab work normally only starts in a couple of weeks.

Have you been outside much?

Sometimes, yes. I come out to shop for food and to meet my friends. I’ve already made three here now! (laughs) It’s quite a funny story, how I met them, actually. I was out shopping for clothes and I started talking to two other people there because I needed some advice about something I was considering buying and we just hit it off. Now we get together from time to time. The other person I know here is an Iranian like myself who went to the same university as me and who has been here longer.

You see, to be honest, I’ve had a really positive experience here despite the lockdown. I find that being a bit social is all you really need. (Elaheh Hasan Nataj Niazi)

What would your advice be for other PhD students that arrive here during lockdown?

Please respect the quarantine rules! It only takes two weeks of your time and afterwards you can go out and have a good experience in Ghent. I know there’s a lockdown but there are still plenty of things you can do: you can go out for walks with small groups, you can talk to people and get to know them. Learn to appreciate the simpler things in life and you will be ok.

Tokuma Negisho Bayissa - EthiopiaTokuma Negisho Bayissa

  • Jimma, Oromia Region, Ethiopia
  • PhD student at the Department of Nutrition, Genetics and Ethology, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine
  • Arrived on 15th of October

Is this your first time in Ghent?

No, luckily, it’s not. I finished my MA at Ghent University in 2012 and I have been coming here for three months every year since 2018 in the context of my doctoral studies at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine under prof. Geert Janssens. So, you could definitely say Ghent is like a second home to me.

Do you have a family?

Yes, I’m married and have one baby-girl and one baby-boy. They are still in Ethiopia. I regularly see them over Skype in my home back in Jimma but I miss my wife and my children a lot. It’s difficult for me to leave them during corona. Especially with the political problems back home. But the PhD is very important to me, so I soldier on.

What are your days like now?

I spend the entire day at home. I only go out to go to the supermarket for foo. I try to bicycle through town once or twice a week to get some exercise. Other than that, I’m always working and writing. I talk to my supervisor once a week to give him an update. I have to wait until the corona measures have been relaxed until I can return to the lab in Merelbeke. But I don’t mind because there’s much to be done.

Are there any other PhD students you know that are in a similar situation as you?

Most of the other PhD students I know are Ethiopians. They’re stuck in their rooms working, just like I am. I speak with them sometimes over Skype. I’ve noticed that it’s especially difficult for the ones that are here for the first time.

What do you mean?

African researchers who have been to Europe before have contacts here, they know where to go for the things they need or who to call. Also, and this is perhaps more important, their research will generally be in a more advanced stage. At a certain point in a project, you know what you need to do in order to be able to finish your research. You have your data set, all you need to do is process it and write down your conclusions: the path is clear, all you need to do is put the work in.

But, if this is your first time in Europe as a researcher from Africa, you’re probably only getting started with a project, which is a stressful time because you don’t have a good work rhythm yet and you don’t have any data to process yet. Universities here are also generally more demanding than the universities I know in Ethiopia. So, even in normal circumstances, starting a PhD in another continent is not an easy task. But right now, with the lockdown measures here in Belgium, it has become quite a bit more challenging. (Tokuma Negisho Bayissa)

I have a friend at KU Leuven who’s here for the first time and he’s having a difficult time because of this. Every time I call him, he’s in a bad mood. Same thing with my other friend who’s working on his master’s degree in the UK. Whenever we speak, he sounds a bit depressed, like he doesn’t know what to do.

What advice do you give him?

First and foremost: focus on your work! The isolation of the lockdown has negative sides, sure, but it also gives a person room to think. In the end, this is really what a PhD student is supposed to be doing. The lockdown gives you an opportunity to really take the time to process the information you’re working with. Don’t focus on the immensity of the task before you, but simply sit down and read and write. It’s better, for example, to read one page and to digest it fully than to spend an entire day fretting about the lockdown and the difficulties.

What can I do myself?

Are you looking for some social contact yourself or do you know someone you want to help get into contact with others? The Doctoral Schools webpage on wellbeing gives you an overview of all the organizations that are run by and for international researchers and employees. Contact them today!