Silent Struggles Understanding Mental Health Challenges Among Writing Center Tutors
Updated: Aug 27
By Rose Farhat Falou
This research paper examines how tutors’ mental health impacts and gets impacted by their jobs at Writing Centers. Unfortunately, research specific to the subject of Writing Center tutors’ mental health is relatively limited. Therefore, this study is essential for understanding tutors’ emotional well-being and how Writing Centers can support them. Tutors from the American University of Sharjah (AUS) Writing Center were surveyed, and secondary sources were analyzed. The findings suggest that the mental health of Writing Center tutors is influenced by their academic, social, and professional lives. Moreover, tutors experiencing burnout and work-related stress perform poorly during tutoring sessions. In contrast, emotionally intelligent tutors excel during their tutoring sessions. Lastly, some proposed measures to be taken by Writing Centers comprise raising awareness about burnout and stress, providing emotional intelligence training, and conducting emotional wellness activities. This research concludes that a tutor’s job in the Writing Centers affects their mental health considerably, and consequently, their mental health influences their job performance.
Keywords: Writing Center, mental health, emotional labor, burnout, work-related stress, emotional intelligence
Silent Struggles: Understanding Mental Health Challenges Among Writing Center Tutors
Walking into the Writing Center, you are greeted by your tutor with a smile. They welcome you, chat with you, and relate to you. You complain about how stressed you are, and the tutor laughs and says, “true! It is a very tough time for all of us.” Behind that smile and laugh, however, there may be cause for concern. At the end of the day, Writing Center tutors are a combination of student and teacher, so they face the mental health challenges of both. In general, mental health is defined as the state of a person’s “emotional, psychological, and social well-being” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2021). As university students, Writing Center tutors are confronted with the challenges that most students face, including managing their academic and social life. Moreover, as educational providers, Writing Center tutors encounter difficulties with time management and emotional suppressions. Consequently, their productivity at the Writing Center and in their own lives could deteriorate, specifically considering the effects that the COVID-19 pandemic had on Writing Centers’ operations. Therefore, the aforementioned topic is important to inform Writing Center administrations about the actions that should be taken to enhance the Writing Center experience for all parties involved, especially the tutors. Moreover, research on the mental health of tutors is relatively limited compared to research on the mental health of students. Thus, understanding tutors’ emotional difficulties allows for the assessment of the tutors’ mental health impact on the tutees, the sessions, the Writing Center as a whole, and the tutors’ lives in general. This research aims to discover the extent to which the mental health of Writing Center tutors affects and gets affected by their job at the Writing Center. In short, factors such as the tutors’ academic, social, and professional lives as tutors in Writing Centers affect their mental health significantly, and their mental health subsequently influences their performance at the Writing Center due to burnout, stress, and emotional intelligence.
Factors that Impact a Tutor’s Mental Health
As students, Writing Center tutors’ mental health is affected by academic pressures such as degree subject, course workload, year of study, and academic performance. In terms of degree subjects, some university majors are often more demanding than others. Students enrolled in majors related to the medical field, such as medicine, nursing, and health sciences, are more predisposed to developing mental health and emotional challenges. The reason for that is the challenging nature of medical majors due to their competitiveness and demanding workload (Kumaraswamy, 2013). Moreover, students majoring in psychology and philosophy are also under a higher risk of emotional distress because of their exposure to complex, theoretical content that may challenge their predefined beliefs (Limone & Toto, 2022). Therefore, Writing Center tutors majoring in medicine, nursing, health science, philosophy, or psychology are more likely to experience academic pressure which can lead to adverse emotional effects.
In addition, university-level course workloads are usually excessive and demanding, so they require students to exert mental efforts which often leave them feeling overwhelmed and exhausted (Asif et al., 2020). To elaborate, each course’s requirements typically include a combination of assignments, quizzes, exams, and/or projects. At a given semester, full-time students are typically registered in four or more classes. Thus, they are required to complete numerous tasks with deadlines over a short period of time. Writing Center tutors, apart from their jobs, are studying and meeting deadlines for all of their courses. Moreover, they must maintain a specific GPA in order to continue to qualify as Writing Center tutors. Therefore, they feel pressured to perform well academically.
Furthermore, although first-year students report feeling anxious about adjusting to college life and heavier workloads, studies have shown that students in their later academic years, especially in their graduation year, experience the highest levels of mental and emotional distress (Limone & Toto, 2022). It is widely regarded that students in their final year are faced with the pressures of submitting final projects, completing internships and job applications, and maintaining grades in advanced courses (Liu et al., 2022). Hence, since Writing Center tutors are mostly students in their final academic years, they experience increased pressure to complete their graduation requirements and succeed.
Lastly, students’ mental health may be affected based on their academic performance. Students with poor academic performance may feel doubtful of their abilities, so they fear failing other nonacademic tasks. Hence, this can reflect negatively on their performance in those tasks (“The devastating power of self-doubt,” 2023). Therefore, Writing Center tutors who are undergoing a period of declined academic performance may feel less self-confident, allowing them to fear performing inadequately during tutoring sessions. In contrast, high-achieving students tend to have higher self-esteem and are more efficient at time management (“The devastating power of self-doubt,” 2023). Thus, since most Writing Center tutors are high achievers, they tend to be equipped with a more motivated and healthier mindset. A survey aimed at AUS Writing Center tutors was conducted (see Appendix A for the survey questions) to examine their beliefs about their mental health in the context of the Writing Center. Of the nineteen respondents, 63.2% claimed that their mental health has been either negatively or somewhat negatively affected by their university studies (see figure 2 in Appendix B). Hence, most AUS Writing Center tutors believe that their academic life is detrimental to their mental health. To sum up, a Writing Center tutor’s academic life impacts their mental health due to their choice of major, class demands, academic year, and level of educational achievement.
In general, the state of a Writing Center tutor’s social interactions can leave a major impact on their mental health. The social life of adolescents, especially university students, is a critical aspect of their lives. It determines how they form current connections with people and teaches them vital social skills for the future. Moreover, a person’s social surroundings shape their ideologies and identity (Devine, 2015). Therefore, one’s social life leaves a great impression on their mental health. Human beings are social creatures who can rarely survive in isolation (Goodwin, 2021, as cited in Cox, 2021). Thus, people often strive to form connections and build friendships. Among university students, studies have shown that friendships are their primary relationships beyond family because they are vital for emotional support (Ratelle et al., 2013). Since university students are similar in age and experience the same struggles, they can relate to each other and feel a sense of belonging. Specifically, students forming and maintaining friendships in their final academic years is positively correlated with decreased anxiety levels and enhanced general well-being (Yubero et al., 2018). Of the surveyed AUS Writing Center tutors, 63.1% believe that their social life either somewhat positively or positively impacts their mental health (see figure 3 in Appendix B). Therefore, the majority of surveyed AUS Writing Center tutors find that their social life benefits their mental well-being. Hence, Writing Center tutors who form strong friendships often rely on their peers to express their emotions and feel comforted, so they experience improved mental and emotional health.
In contrast, social isolation and deprivation is harmful to people’s mental health, especially that of students. Unfortunately, students who are more introverted often face difficulties making friends and forming deep connections (Zhang et al., 2017). Self-isolation and having few friends are linked with feelings of loneliness which harbor low self-confidence, so students will be more prone to developing anxiety and depression (Limone & Toto, 2022). Thus, Writing Center tutors who find difficulty forming friendships may exhibit emotional discomfort. One particular incident that proved to be detrimental to students’ social lives was the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the widespread of the virus, governments mandated quarantines and social distancing protocols. As a result, schools, universities, and social events were all moved to online platforms. Therefore, it became difficult for students to engage in real-world interactions with their friends and peers beyond their screens (Orben et al., 2020). Hence, many students lost the relationships that provided them with support, and they were plunged into deep isolation and loneliness. In most universities, tutoring sessions in Writing Centers shifted online during the pandemic. According to Worm (2020), Writing Center tutors expressed difficulty in building rapport and effectively communicating with their tutees online. Therefore, on top of the seclusion experienced by tutors during the pandemic, online tutorials did not significantly facilitate their ability to socially engage. Consequently, the COVID-19 pandemic adversely impacted the social life of Writing Center tutors, which in turn harmed their mental health. In summary, the social life of Writing Center tutors plays a major role in enhancing or impairing their emotional and mental health.
Job at the Writing Center
The mental health of Writing Center tutors can be positively or negatively impacted by their jobs at their Writing Centers. For some tutors, the Writing Center is a safe space to interact with their colleagues and engage in the activity they love the most: teaching their tutees how to become good writers. Tutors often work at the Writing Center between their classes, so they may perceive the Writing Center as a calm place to take a break and unwind. Moreover, some tutors may not view their jobs at the Writing Center as “work”. Rather, they may associate it with being a hobby they look forward to doing. 63.1% of surveyed AUS Writing Center tutors claim that their job either somewhat positively or positively affects their mental health (see figure 4 Appendix B). Thus, most of the AUS tutors that responded to the survey view their Writing Center job as beneficial to their mental health. Furthermore, the Writing Center offers tutors an opportunity to meet new people every day and learn new things from each paper during each tutoring session. Therefore, tutors at the Writing Center are exposed to diverse students from different cultural backgrounds who enrich their minds and inspire their creativity (Chiu, 2019). Consequently, many tutors’ jobs in Writing Centers enhance their mental and emotional health.
On the other hand, some Writing Center tutors experience negative emotions while working at the Writing Center. Most of the time, this is due to unfavorable working conditions at Writing Centers and the sessions being too emotionally laborious. In terms of working conditions, some tutors have immoderate workloads with constantly varying tasks. Furthermore, tutors in some Writing Centers have reported the unavailability of resources, the absence of recognition for accomplishments, and an unreliable and inexperienced staff (Giaimo, 2023). However, the most substantial cause of emotional distress among tutors is the excessive amount of time they spend working at their Writing Centers (Giaimo, 2023). Thus, they often do not have sufficient time to tend to other aspects of their lives such as their social and academic endeavors.
In addition, the job of a Writing Center tutor requires them to perform emotional labor. Emotional labor is the alteration of one’s emotions to meet the expectations of their job requirements by either displaying the suitable emotions or suppressing the unsuitable ones (Remington, 2016). Writing Center tutors are required to be friendly and maintain a positive attitude from the beginning to the end of tutoring sessions. During sessions, tutors are expected to excite their tutees, relate to their experiences, respond to their disappointments, and calm down their frustrations. Also, when a tutee is too emotional or acting inappropriately, tutors are trained to suppress their true emotions, remain patient, and respond positively (Mannon, 2021). Over time, such rigid regulation of emotions can become too overwhelming and burdensome. Therefore, excessive emotional labor may lead tutors to experience burnout and work-related stress (Im et al., 2020). In short, the tutors’ jobs at their Writing Centers can boost or diminish their mental and emotional health.
Effect of a Tutor’s Mental Health on Their Job
The accumulation of the aforementioned factors that impact a Writing Center tutor’s mental health may lead to burnout among some tutors. According to Sanchez-Gomez & Breso, burnout is the reaction to constant emotional stressors in the context of the work environment. Usually, burnout is characterized by feelings of exhaustion, indifference towards work, and decreased professional efficiency (2020). Writing Center tutors who suffer from burnout may experience fatigue, frequent distraction, stress, and impatience. Consequently, the quality of the tutors’ performances during their tutoring sessions may decline, which is negatively correlated with tutee satisfaction. Writing Center tutors who experience burnout and participate in tutoring sessions are less likely to engage positively with their tutees (Madigan & Kim, 2021). They will not have the energy to focus with the tutees, motivate them, or be patient with them. As a result, the tutees may leave their sessions feeling displeased and unfulfilled, which can reflect poorly on the tutors’ evaluations. Generally, burnout can negatively affect the quality of performance of Writing Center tutors during their tutoring sessions.
At AUS, 36.8% of the surveyed Writing Center tutors claimed that they sometimes experience burnout (see figure 5 in Appendix B). Although sometimes experiencing burnout was not the majority’s response, it reflects that the experience of burnout does exist among some tutors, which is a problem that must be addressed. Moreover, when asked about how often they lose focus during tutoring sessions, 21.1% of surveyed AUS Writing Center tutors claimed that they lose focus more often than not (see figure 7 in Appendix B). Therefore, a considerable number of tutors do feel distracted during their tutoring sessions, which can adversely impact their performance and their quality of assistance. In addition, 21.1% of respondents claimed that they sometimes felt irritated with their tutees during their tutoring sessions (see figure 8 in Appendix B). Similarly, although that was not the majority’s response, it is important to consider the negative outcomes that may arise, such as the tutors’ impatience with and lack of support for their tutees. Therefore, some AUS Writing Center tutors do experience burnout and its implications during their tutoring sessions, which can hinder their ability to perform their job effectively.
Some Writing Center tutors may experience work-related stress which leads to declined efficiency, decreased quality of work performance, and increased absenteeism. Work-related stress is an individual’s response to being subjected to immoderate workloads or other workplace stressors (Rajgopal, 2010). In the context of a Writing Center, work-related stress may affect tutors who work for an excessive number of hours weekly without having proper time management skills. Workplace stress may present itself as a combination of physical and mental health challenges such as body aches, fatigue, depression, and anxiety (Rajgopal, 2010). Moreover, research suggests that the relationship between workplace stress and efficiency is negatively correlated; increased stress is associated with decreased efficiency (Bui et al., 2021). Consequently, stress symptoms impair a tutor’s ability to be productive, make good decisions, or even attend their tutoring sessions.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, government-imposed quarantine and the shift from the physical workplace to an online one caused an increase in mental and psychological challenges among employees (Saleem et al., 2021). The COVID-19 pandemic created a disruption in workflow which led to elevated work-related stress levels among employees. Moreover, isolation and lack of contact between colleagues diminished their morale which contributed to their increased stress. Thus, the employees’ quality of performance declined in their respective workplaces (Saleem et al., 2021). According to Worm (2020), the Writing Center tutors that she surveyed asserted that for the most part, the effectiveness of tutoring was negatively impacted. Hence, the COVID-19 pandemic played an active role in increasing workplace stress among Writing Center tutors, which lead to adverse impacts on the tutors’ performances during their tutoring sessions.
Writing Center tutors who possess emotional intelligence are more likely to be aware of their emotions and understand how to regulate them. As explained by Sanchez-Gomez & Breso, emotional intelligence is a person’s ability to distinguish, analyze, and regulate their own and other people’s emotions (2020). Interestingly, when asked about how often they have excused themselves to leave a tutoring session, 100% of the AUS Writing Center tutors surveyed reported that they have never excused themselves to withdraw from a session (see figure 9 in Appendix B). Moreover, the majority of responses pertaining to burnout, stress, and their effects revealed that most AUS tutors are not significantly impacted by burnout and stress and that their tutoring sessions are not often impaired by their emotional struggles (see figures 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 in Appendix B). Therefore, these results may be attributed to the significant emotional intelligence of AUS Writing Center tutors.
A person’s feelings and emotions largely impact their quality of performance at work. Hence, being emotionally intelligent allows Writing Center tutors to effectively identify when they are experiencing burnout and stress, which, in turn, helps the tutors overcome those challenges. Therefore, emotionally intelligent Writing Center tutors are likely to be more efficient, have an enhanced quality of work performance, and are less prone to quitting (Sanchez-Gomez & Breso, 2020). In addition, tutors who are emotionally intelligent are more interactive with their fellow tutors, display more empathy, take more initiatives, and are less susceptible to disengaging with their tutees (Mattingly et al., 2020). Moreover, emotional intelligence allows tutors to handle emotionally taxing and solve work-related problems more effectively and efficiently, while also maintaining their emotional well-being. Research has shown that emotional intelligence is positively correlated with decreasing the adverse effects of burnout and stress which allows the tutors to be more energetic, feel more excited and motivated to work, and increase their quality of work performance (Sanchez-Gomez & Breso, 2020). To summarize, emotional intelligence is an important skill that allows tutors to mitigate their experience of burnout and stress.
Proposed Measures to be Taken at Writing Centers
Burnout and Stress Awareness
In order to educate Writing Center tutors and instructors about the symptoms and effects of burnout and stress, tutor training programs can provide lessons about mental health, conduct workshops about emotional well-being, and train instructors to recognize mental health challenges in tutors. Delivering classes on mental health can be facilitated by collaborating with the Psychology department in the Writing Centers’ respective universities. For example, graduate students and faculty members from the Psychology department can conduct lectures on burnout, stress, anxiety, and more to raise the tutors’ awareness of what to look out for if they are feeling emotionally distraught. According to Crum et al., programs that integrate lessons on emotion management and constructive habits are successful at educating tutors about regulating their emotions and building positive behaviors to alleviate mental difficulties (2017). In addition, workshops can be conducted regularly in order to supplement the lectures on mental health. For instance, workshops on time management can be offered to tutors who encounter difficulties with their academics, quality of sleep, and task prioritization (Abrams, 2022). According to surveyed AUS Writing Center tutors, workshops are one of the effective and prominent emotional well-being activities provided to them by the AUS Writing Center (see figure 13 in Appendix B). Therefore, Writing Center tutors can be educated on their mental health through the integration of lectures and workshops in tutor training programs.
Moreover, Writing Center administrators can be trained to identify when tutors are struggling with mental health challenges in order to interfere and aid them. Students spend the majority of their day in university. Therefore, although instructors are not equipped to be counselors, it is important for them to be able to recognize when their students are distraught and know how to effectively reach out to them. For example, the University of North Carolina has provided their faculty members with Mental Health First Aid training, which is a program that teaches instructors suitable ways to support students with mental health difficulties (Abrams, 2022). In addition, some universities, such as Pennsylvania State University, train their staff members to “recognize, respond, and refer” when encountered with students in emotional distress (Abrams, 2022). Instructors can recognize that students are emotionally struggling if unexpected shifts in mannerisms and actions occur. For example, if a student is suddenly absent from classes or failing exams, this can imply that the student is undergoing mental health challenges. Then, faculty members are advised to respond by communicating with the student and asking about their well-being. After that, the students can be referred to mental well-being resources, such as the campus counseling service or external therapy (Abrams, 2022). Hence, training Writing Center administrators to spot mental and emotional struggles among their tutors is a useful method to make both the administrators and tutors aware of the mental challenges and find solutions to them.
Emotional Intelligence Training
As explained in a previous section, emotional intelligence is a valuable skill that can mitigate burnout and stress among Writing Center tutors. Therefore, training tutors to be emotionally intelligent is an important addition to tutor training programs. For example, one form of emotional intelligence training is derived from transformative learning, which is based on the notion that learners are capable of altering their thoughts and perspectives when encountering newfound knowledge (“Transformative learning theory,” n.d.). The training program involves five steps. First, participants are taught how to discover and assess their emotions. Next, they are trained in how to be aware of themselves and deeply contemplate their feelings and emotions. Then, the program encourages participants to recognize and understand what they know to be true about themselves. After that, they are coached on skills and methods to develop themselves and manage their emotions. Finally, participants apply what they learned in order to improve their mental and emotional well-being (Low & Nelson, 2005, as cited in Hen & Sharabi-Nov, 2014). By offering this program to Writing Center tutors, they will be trained on how to identify their emotions and regulate them objectively and effectively.
Another more feasible program that can be offered is in the form of a workshop that instructs its participants about detailed information regarding the aspects and skills associated with emotional intelligence. Moreover, the workshop can provide insight on the ways emotional intelligence is crucial for improved academic performance, decision-making skills, stress regulation, social connections, and colleague collaboration. Furthermore, within the workshop, interactive group activities can be incorporated to demonstrate modern approaches and skills to increase an individual’s emotional intelligence (Brackett & Katulak, 2006, as cited in Hen & Sharabi-Nov, 2014). Therefore, including an emotional intelligence training program that is within the scope of the Writing Center can be a highly effective method to help tutors manage their stress levels and burnout experiences.
Emotional Well-Being Activities and Services
An additional measure that can be taken at Writing Centers is providing emotional well-being activities such as mental health days and group activities. Mental health days are days in which workers are allowed to take time off work in order for them to relax and unwind. By making mental health days compulsory, or at least highly encouraged, Writing Center tutors can take a few days off from their job during a semester in order to focus on their emotional well-being. Furthermore, when asked about what emotional well-being services and activities are provided in their Writing Center, many of the AUS tutors referenced “group gatherings” and “team-building activities” (see figure 13 in Appendix B). Thus, introducing group activities to Writing Centers that lack them can foster a rich sense of community and strengthen bonds between tutors. Some group activities can revolve around the theme of working together to solve a problem or accomplish a task, while others can be solely for amusement, such as playing board games or creating art. Also, meditation-based group activities, such as yoga and deep breathing routines, can help tutors calm down and clear their minds. Hence, providing mental health days and group activities at Writing Centers can positively impact tutors’ mental and emotional well-being.
Moreover, peer counseling can be a highly effective service that utilizes peer relatability and empathy to aid students with their mental and emotional struggles. Research has shown that 75% of distressed students contact a friend first about their hardships; however, only 11% of students communicate with their instructors or superiors (Abrams, 2022). When asked about what personal coping strategies they use for emotional well-being in the Writing Center, many of the AUS tutors mentioned “talking to a peer” or “spending time with friends” (see figure 11 in Appendix B). Therefore, eligible students can undergo extensive training on counseling techniques to become peer counselors who are assigned to help students who are dealing with manageable issues, such as burnout, stress, and lack of motivation (Abrams, 2022). Also, students who experience feelings of loneliness and diminished self-confidence can greatly benefit from talking to their peers who are trained counselors who also may have experienced those feelings. In addition, according to the directors of the peer counseling service at Washington State University in St. Louis, the service is a favorite amongst struggling students because they receive help from their peers without having to worry about any financial costs (Abrams, 2022). In short, offering peer counseling services at Writing Centers can highly improve the state of tutors’ emotional and mental health.
In conclusion, the mental health of a Writing Center tutor substantially impacts and is impacted by their employment at the Writing Center. The mental health of a Writing Center tutor is shaped by their academic, social, and professional lives. As students, tutors face academic challenges due to their choice of major, program workload, academic standing, and educational achievements. Moreover, a tutor’s social life can positively influence their mental well-being by maintaining social connections, or it can negatively impact their mental well-being by having a limited social circle. Furthermore, a tutor’s career at the Writing Center can improve their emotional state if they view their job as an enjoyable hobby. Conversely, their job can also worsen their emotional state if they work in an unpleasant environment or experience excessive emotional labor. On the other hand, a Writing Center tutor’s mental health can also affect their job performance due to burnout, workplace stress, and emotional intelligence. If a tutor experiences burnout and workplace stress, then they are more likely to perform inadequately during tutoring sessions. However, emotionally intelligent tutors are capable of identifying and managing their negative emotions. Hence, their performance during tutoring sessions will be enhanced. Therefore, in order to support the tutors’ emotional well-being, Writing Centers in the United Arab Emirates, and worldwide, must implement certain measures. Such measures include teaching tutors and instructors about burnout and stress, training tutors to be emotionally intelligent, and providing tutors with emotional wellness activities and services. By keeping their tutors’ mental health in mind, Writing Centers can become exceptional facilities that produce individuals who are resilient, enlightened, and empowered.
Certain research limitations must be accounted for in this study. First, the total number of respondents who completed the survey was only nineteen AUS Writing Center tutors. Therefore, the sample size is significantly insufficient, and the results may not reflect actual trends. Moreover, the survey was sent out only to Writing Center tutors in AUS, so the findings may not correspond to the experiences of Writing Center tutors in other universities locally and internationally. Additionally, the AUS tutors’ responses to the survey may not entirely reflect their true thoughts and feelings due to concerns surrounding job security. Although the survey clearly mentioned that the responses will be entirely anonymous, the tutors might still have felt hesitant to respond honestly in fear of losing their job. Hence, the results were more biased towards a positive view of the AUS Writing Center’s ability to support its tutor’s emotional well-being. To account for these limitations, further research must be conducted at a larger scope and include Writing Center tutors from universities worldwide. Moreover, future researchers may implement other methods to further reassure participants of the anonymity of their responses. Also, it is recommended that additional research must be conducted about whether the proposed solutions in this research paper are reasonable and appropriate in the context of a Writing Center. Overall, this research paper provides a holistic view on the topic of the mental health of Writing Center tutors, which has practical implications for what actions Writing Centers must take to prioritize the mental and emotional well-being of their tutors.
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