Burnout in students: why we should acknowledge it
This exam season, after pulling consecutive all-nighters and living on a diet of coffee and crisps from the University library’s vending machine, it is very likely that you’ll be experiencing ‘burnout’. But what is burnout?
The term has been around for a number of years, and it most commonly refers to when things just get too much. You have been doing so much with work, school, extra-curriculars that you haven’t really given your body much of a chance to catch up. Imagine your body is a glass that can hold one litre of water, and rather than pouring the correct amount in and giving that water time to be drunk, you just keep pouring more and more in; more than the glass can handle. So, the glass overfills.
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The voice of burnout is not YOUR voice. Burnout will say you aren't cut out for it, that you don't enjoy it, that you aren't good at it. Don't make career decisions while you are burned out. Switch employers, cut down hours, get a side gig selling slotted spoons on eBay, do what you gotta do to equal out your stress and your support resources. . . . I think this article was the most important thing I read in all of grad school. Main takeaway: burnout isn't weakness, incompatibility with the field, or even a simple response to stress: burnout is what happens when we are exposed to more stress than we are given resources to cope with. A portion of these needed resources are self-care, but it's more about professional resources: good supervision, time and space to ethically and confidentially process with colleagues, and time off to recharge. Agencies and organizations often put the burden on staff via instructions to "self care," but evidence suggests this is an occupational health problem. Agencies can reduce therapist burnout by increasing support resources. . . . Check out the full article (this doodle covers just a fraction of it!) by clicking on the link in my profile to my website (where you'll find a bonus burnout doodle!) Or googling the title + author (Alexandra Michel) . . . #therapistproblems #therapistlife #burnout #stressedout #selfcare #mentalhealthawareness #sketchnote
Despite burnout being pretty well-known, it is very often overlooked.
However, burnout has recently been classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a ‘syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’.
Although the WHO look at burnout primarily in a workplace context, it is something that can clearly be applied to student life. How often do you talk to your friends about feeling stressed with assignments, exams and lectures? Do you often find yourself huddled in the library finishing an essay despite telling yourself that you would take time off? Evidently, university is a place full of people who are under constant, debilitating stress who—due to deadlines and a desire to do well—don’t give themselves as much of a break as they perhaps should.
Subsequently, the WHO characterises burnout according to three dimensions:
- Feelings of energy depletion and exhaustion
- Increased mental distance, negativity or cynicism towards one’s job
- Reduced professional efficacy
Let’s go through this step-by-step. Firstly, students having a reputation for being lazy. They oversleep, don’t tidy up enough and miss all their lectures and seminars in favour of a lie in after their wild nights out. However, what people don’t seem to realise is that although students go out a lot during Freshers' Week, they are often spending sleepless nights in the library; poring over textbooks, studying, or writing 4,000-word essays. When they finish in the early hours of the morning, they manage to fit in a few hours of sleep before they have to get up and repeat the process.
On top of that, you have a lot of students who have to work part-time in order to supplement the cost of living; and, don’t forget that we are also expected to do work experience and internships throughout our degree, because the degree alone isn’t enough to get a job anymore: not to mention those students who are also involved in student societies, committees and sports teams. All things considered, I think it’s fair to say that students might sleep in a bit later than those with a 9-5 job as a direct result of burnout—they are experiencing ‘energy depletion and exhaustion’ which then leads to ‘reduced professional efficacy’.
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Secondly, how often have you said or heard others say that they loved their degree subject at secondary school, but subsequently lost that passion after studying it at University? This is a fairly common phenomenon which is another clear sign of burnout: by losing their passion for the subject or, as some students do, growing to resent it, it is clear that students are experiencing that ‘increased mental distance’ from the thing they love because they are becoming burnt out.
Overall, we need to look at burnout in a wider context—you only need to know a student or experience being one to know that the stress they’re under is more than or equal to a full-time job. If we learn how to recognise the signs of burnout in students, we will be in a better position help ourselves and others. Burnout in students needs to be taken seriously, and we need to encourage them to take time out for themselves to rest.
So, when people say that they need to ‘recharge their batteries’, it’s truer than you think. You wouldn’t expect your phone to work days on end without giving it some time to charge, so why not give yourself the same respect. We might not be Apple products with a Retina display, but we’re still pretty damn valuable.