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Up-Close & Personal: How student internships take a toll on mental health

Students are reporting anxiety, lack of respect and overall negative experiences at their internships. While Ryerson has resources for them, students are finding the problems are more complex than resources can sometimes help

Young people between the ages of 15 to 24 are more likely to experience mental illness than any other age group, according to statistics from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. At the University of Toronto, there have been three student deaths in the past two years, sparking a conversation about the need for more accessible mental health resources on campuses, The Varsity reported at the end of September.

Like any publication, at The Eyeopener, we cover mental health as often and as inclusively as we can, but we can always do more. That’s why we’ve launched an online package comprised of three feature stories where we talk to Ryerson students about less obvious aspects of mental wellbeing that affect them in their daily lives.  

Read other stories from our package: Why we’re talking about mental health in-depth this week, what students find when they turn to the internet for counselling and why students are in need of identity-specific counselling.

Words by Kirti Vyas

O n a sunny, humid day in July, Sonia Kapoor* was in a meeting taking notes for the executives at her office placement in Richmond Hill. As the third-year business technology management student  typed away on her laptop, a hand suddenly appeared before her, startling her.

Kapoor’s project manager snapped his fingers in front of her face to get her attention, then gestured toward her monitor. “Open up,” he said, pointing to a file on her screen—a file that he also had open on his laptop. For the rest of the meeting, the project manager repeatedly called her out.

“Everyone could hear him saying: ‘Sonia, are you opening it? Sonia, are you doing this?’” she recalls, sighing. “It’s unnecessary things to show that he’s the more superior one, the one in charge.”

This was one of many degrading incidents she experienced at her paid co-op placement through Ryerson this summer. Her project manager often acted aggressively and was condescending toward her. She hadn’t reported anything to the human resources (HR) department earlier because she wanted to manage the situation by herself. But this time, she felt her manager had crossed a line.

“I was really upset about it. The entire meeting after that, I was out of it,” she says. With the encouragement of a coworker who witnessed previous instances of this behaviour, Kapoor finally reported the incident to HR.

Students are having negative experiences at their internships and they don’t know where to turn. Disrespect from managers and lack of accountability are just some of the issues students may deal with in the workplace. 

But when a co-op or internship turns toxic, not all students feel comfortable reporting their negative experiences to the HR department or co-op coordinators because they’re scared of damaging their career prospects. And while co-op programs and internship coordinators take steps to ensure student safety and wellbeing, these experiences can still be detrimental to students’ mental health.

K apoor says the first time her project manager was demeaning toward her, she had to leave early because she was crying and overwhelmed. She began to dread going to work because she knew she would have to face him. “I [could] never do enough, because they always put me down for the work that I [did] do,” she says. “They [didn’t] appreciate it enough.”

Kapoor says she felt like her project manager’s unprofessional behaviour toward her was because he was racist and sexist. According to Kapoor, the project manager, a brown man, treated the other white interns courteously. But he was “very aggressive” toward other brown staff members, including the woman who encouraged her to go to HR.

A few hours after the meeting incident when her manager snapped at her, Kapoor reported to the HR manager that she was experiencing difficulties with him. She asked them not to inform the main manager since she had a month left working at the insurance company. 

When a co-op or internship turns toxic, not all students feel comfortable reporting their negative experiences

The representative respected her wishes, but suggested she try to be more confrontational the next time something like this happened again. If the project manager still wouldn’t stop, they would have to report it to the main manager. 

She also suggested Kapoor inform Ryerson’s co-op coordinators about the matter. Conveniently, they were scheduled to come in and check up on her that day. This would be the first time they would come to check in on her in the three months since she started her placement back in May.

The Ted Rogers School of Management (TRSM) co-op coordinators conduct check-ins at students’ placements, which involve individual meetings with both the student and employer. These protocols are for coordinators to review student performance, address any of their concerns and to refer them to campus resources for additional support.

Generally, coordinators will remove students from a work placement if the team finds it necessary to do so. “Student safety always comes first,” wrote Graham Sogawa, executive director of the Business Career Hub at TRSM in an email to The Eyeopener.

Kapoor felt her co-op coordinators were supportive. They suggested she tell the head manager about everything and email them about the situation for documentation purposes. The coordinators promised not to speak directly to the manager unless she asked them to. If students choose to stay at their work placement, they are coached in how to engage with HR and might even contact the department on the students’ behalf when requested.

Gordon Flett, a professor in the department of psychology at York University, says stress can affect students working at internships varyingly depending on their experiences.

He adds that many people in the workplace deal with mental health concerns, and stressful conditions at work tend to exacerbate these problems. According to Flett, one of the main causes of stress is whether people think they are being treated fairly. Especially, students who aren’t paid completing duties that are usually done by someone who is paid.

Interns who encounter bosses with unfair expectations will endure stress and have to combat feelings of anger and frustration, he comments. As many people have a tendency to put up a front to cover up their anxiety and depression due to stigma, these problems may not be known to many people in the workplace, he says.

K ayla Scott* was denied a reference letter from the law firm she interned at despite working there for over 100 hours. The internship was neither for credit, nor paid. The third-year law and business student was offered experience and a reference letter in exchange for her time—something she believed would be useful for her application to law school.

It was the end of a chilly November. Unforeseen financial circumstances forced Scott to quit her unpaid internship so she could take up more hours at her part-time job. She discussed her resignation with her superior, a legal clerk in charge of handling the interns, through text. The superior agreed and reminded Scott to send an official email to the office manager. 

Although she never received a response to her email, everyone in the office operated as though it was all okay. The few staff members she worked with said their goodbyes at the end of the day and Scott parted ways with the firm.

The day before she left, when Scott approached the manager for her reference letter, she was told that no one had written one and was asked if she could write one up for herself so that a lawyer at the office could sign it. Scott reiterated that she wanted an honest letter about her work performance written by the manager and would be waiting for it on her last day.

Yet, her last day came and went with no letter in sight. She waited a week after she left until she emailed them again. No response. She waited another week, this time pointing back to her initial email. Eventually, around final exam season, the office manager emailed her saying she wouldn’t be receiving a letter.

“I read the email and I was so upset,” she says. “I was already stressed with school, with five courses and work. Then, I see this email and it makes me even more frustrated,” Scott chose not to push any further for the reference letter because she feared the firm would end up writing a negative one.

This is the reality for many students who pursue unpaid internships. Companies find it easier to exploit students at little cost to them. Under the Employment Standards Act (ESA), unpaid internships that are not for school credit are illegal in Ontario. As of Jan. 1, 2018, when Ontario’s minimum wage increased to $14 per hour, the province updated internship laws to consider individuals completing internships not part of a secondary, post-secondary, or professional program, to qualify as an employee under the ESA—thus making them entitled to minimum wage.

Flett says unpaid internships in particular can cause greater stress among youth. He is specifically concerned with “self-stigma”—when students internalize negative messages surrounding mental health and refuse to get help. He says students need to realize they are not alone.

Interns at the firm Scott worked at completed many duties one would generally pay an employee to do. This included uploading case files online, certifying and depositing cheques, going “undercover” at other firms to learn how they certified their cheques so that the firm could find easier methods of certifying their own and other miscellaneous tasks.

But, worst of all, the firm entrusted Scott with highly classified client information that she still has access to till this day, a year after she’s left. Her bosses sent clients’ cheques for mortgages to her personal email account instead of providing her with a business email. Currently, she still has access to clients’ cheques, ranging from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars.

Despite going through such a tough time, Scott did not reach out to any Ryerson resources for support because she was under a lot of stress with school and work. She wasn’t aware of the resources that were available to her and didn’t really have the time to find them.

On Dec. 13, 2018, Scott reached out to a representative from the Canadian Intern Association, an external student internship protection agency, but the most he could do was refer her to the Ministry of Labour. 

She didn’t escalate the situation any further because she was tired. 

“No matter how long you spend there [at an internship], how much work you do, [employers] just don’t care because you’re a student. That’s what frustrates me. I don’t want anyone else to go through that,” Scott says. “If you can’t even give me a reference letter then what can you do for a student?” Scott says the experience has left her not wanting to volunteer at any more law firms in the near future.

Unpaid internships in particular can cause greater stress among youth

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) protects people from ageism, which it defines as “making assumptions based on labels and attitudes about age.” Ageism impacts people both young and old, but for students in the workplace it could look like disrespect from managers in positions of authority, employers refusing to hire on the basis of age, or the dismissal of complaints from younger workers.  Age discrimination comes at the cost of young people’s careers and most importantly, their mental health.

TRSM is accredited by Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning Canada (CEWIL Canada), a national organization for work-integrated learning. They partner with post-secondary institutions to create co-op opportunities for students, abiding by ethics guidelines for students, employers and schools.

In adherence to their postsecondary institutions’ ethics guide, Ryerson students taking part in school-mandated co-ops or internships must complete training that builds their awareness of workplace laws and policies relating to discrimination, harassment and health and safety before their first work term. 

Ryerson’s Sogawa adds that students are also provided with contact information for various on-campus services available to them. This includes the Centre for Student Development and Counselling and the Office of Sexual Support and Violence. Information is also provided on how to file a complaint with Human Rights Services.

Sogawa says that the policies about student safety and well-being are strict. “Any concerns raised by students on work assignment are immediately discussed with the team and when an employer is deemed unsuitable for co-op placement this information is shared with other teams across Ryerson.”

Co-op coordinators are available to students who need support, advice and direction throughout their co-op experience. When they have been required to intervene to support a student, coordinators look to students’ personal inputs and feedback on how to handle the situation.

Sogawa recalls a student who reported their toxic co-op workplace and was asked to work weekly with the coordinator to ensure they were processing the situation positively. The student was connected with Ryerson’s mental health team and they continued through the co-op program, later successful in securing a new role. 

“Our orientation process specifically makes people aware of mental health resources on campus and our coordinators are aware of how to direct people for enhanced support if requested. If anyone feels there’s more that can be done to direct students to mental health resources at Ryerson, we would be very open to that discussion.” he says.

Flett says universities need to focus more on providing “proactive resilience training” to students, teaching them how to cope with workplace stressors and achievement setbacks. The training would encourage students to advocate for themselves, he says. The TRSM co-op program attempts to highlight these points in their orientation process.

A t night, Kapoor procrastinated sleeping because she didn’t want to wake up for work the next morning. Although she gained great work experience, the negativity eventually overshadowed her overall experience.

“I haven’t told my family about this. I feel like they would feel bad for me if they [knew]. It’s unfair and I don’t want them to worry about my work environment and worry about my career,” Kapoor says.

Kapoor thinks that Ryerson prepared her to deal with some negative situations in the workplace, but not all of them. “Yes, they’ve prepared me for situations where I could be in the wrong, or things that I should try to avoid doing,” she says. “But they haven’t prepared me to handle a situation when it’s on the other person’s end—the company, who I’m working with. If they’re giving me a tough time, how do I handle that?” 

Kapoor says she’s learned from her experience, though. Her advice for her future self is to be more confident in her own abilities and know criticism doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with her—despite what a supervisor or manager might say. 

*Names have been changed

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