Preventing Burnout in College Students

November 1, 2021

Imagine pushing a heavy wheelbarrow across a track of indeterminate length. It’s full of important supplies that you need to get to the other side. But you don’t get any real breaks in your labor, just periodic rests in which you can temporarily slump against the wheelbarrow and shut your eyes. Day after day, you wake up and immediately start pushing again. Eventually, this will exhaust both your mind and body. You keep pushing, but you start moving more and more slowly as you lose faith in your ability to ever reach the endpoint. That’s burnout.

We all have days when we feel sluggish and depressed. We also have days where we don’t perform to our full ability. Burnout goes beyond these occasional lapses. It’s the label for a more serious, ongoing health problem.

In the late stages of the pandemic and going forward, college students are and will be experiencing student burnout at unprecedented levels. That’s why it’s vital to recognize the signs, help students to cope with chronic stress, and prevent it as best as you can.

‌What Is Student Burnout?

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) added job burnout to the list of conditions it acknowledges. While the WHO’s definition focuses on burnout related to traditional employment, it also applies to education.

According to the WHO, burnout includes:

  • Exhaustion
  • Detachment from one’s work
  • Possible negativity, cynicism, or depression
  • Compromised job performance

Going into the 2020-21 school year, the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America study found that college students aged 18-23 overwhelmingly reported significant stress concerning their education. The pandemic has added to their uncertainty about both their own futures and the futures of their schools. 

Things haven’t gotten any better. At Ohio State University, self-reported student burnout climbed to 71% in April 2021. And at Brown, students suffered from an accelerated semester that created untenable workloads

In a normal year, colleges struggle to retain students, losing almost 20% of matriculated students— a number that doesn’t include the high number of delays and deferrals that keep many students from completing their degree in the anticipated two or four years. 

How much higher might the number be when many students are already beginning the 2021-22 school year exhausted and overwhelmed?

‌What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Burnout? 

‌Student burnout affects a person’s mental health, physical health, and academic performance. If you notice any of the following signs in yourself or others, you may be experiencing burnout or approaching that state:

  • You feel tired and drained most of the time.
  • You experience persistent headaches or stomach discomfort.
  • You often get sick. 
  • Your eating and/or sleeping habits have changed.
  • You’re less motivated to accomplish things and derive less satisfaction from your accomplishments.
  • Your outlook has become substantially more negative or cynical.
  • You experience feelings of failure, frustration, and/or helplessness.
  • You feel lonely or detached.
  • You find yourself withdrawing from activities or procrastinating your responsibilities. 
  • You struggle to pay attention.
  • You turn in late work or work that doesn’t meet your usual standards for quality.
  • Your grades have slipped.

Don’t neglect these symptoms or expect an effortless recovery.

What Resources Do Colleges Have to Address Burnout?

Obviously, different institutions have different resources. But over the last few years, there has been a nationwide push to make increased mental health resources available to college students.

Most schools have a dedicated Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) program or center. Learn about how, where, and when your students might have therapy available to them. Having this information on hand will help you to appropriately direct students in need.

Many colleges have also begun integrating mental health awareness and an overview of resources into their orientation to campus life. Find out whether your school does this and what school-specific advice and information they offer. And if your school doesn’t incorporate mental health material into its orientation, this might be a good time for it to start.

You can also find additional resources — including a directory of college-specific resources — at ULifeline, a website devoted to college mental health. (Note: sometime during 2021, the website will migrate to the site of its parent organization, the JED Foundation.)

‌What Can Educators Do to Help Prevent Burnout?

‌Educators need to be partners in their students’ campaigns against burnout. They need to make certain recommendations and accommodations for students they see suffering in this new era.

‌Give Voice to the Problem

‌Many college students who would benefit from professional help don’t seek it. Even now, there’s a pervasive stigma associated with mental health issues that college students often internalize.

Be vocal about widespread burnout. Identify it as a simple fact of our current world order. You can remind your students of the resources they have available to them and encourage them to also lean on their own support networks.

Openly discussing the problem also helps to combat the withdrawal and sense of isolation that often accompanies burnout. 

‌Reach Out 

Educators often see signs of student burnout but don’t necessarily speak to the students involved. If you know a student is struggling — or if their grades start tumbling — reach out. Sometimes all they need is a little nudge in the right direction. 

A‌ssign a Moderate Workload

‌One major cause of student burnout in college is assignment overload. While you should by no means compromise important standards, you should take this opportunity to reexamine your syllabus and the workload it mandates. 

Are there places where you can cut assignments or readings without seriously affecting the level of education you provide? Do it. Even a few minor tweaks can have a profound effect on your students. 

You can also make some changes during the course of the semester. While you shouldn’t fundamentally alter your grading structure, you can decide to refocus or cross off minor assignments. Your students definitely won’t complain.

‌Accommodate Reasonable Requests

And encourage your students to make them. Most classes last for an entire trimester or semester. The inevitable result is a certain amount of deadline congestion. Students often find that major assignments and tests tend to pile up between classes with everything happening around the same time.

Students also have their own non-academic commitments to manage. Many are holding down jobs, handling family obligations, or volunteering. 

Unless you have a really good reason not to, grant short extension requests — and inform students of this policy at the beginning of the semester. This will reinforce proactive time management. 

‌Encourage Healthy Habits

‌Sleep. A healthy diet. Exercise. Self-care. More sleep.

College students who don’t take care of their bodies are more prone to burnout. Remind them of the importance of good food and hygiene habits. Encourage them to try on-campus yoga classes or other new activities.

And tell them to get some sleep! Young adults (18-25 years old) should get seven to nine hours of sleep a night.

That is rarely the experience of the average college student. So many subject themselves to long nights spent cramming for tests or furiously writing papers. There’s even a mythology about all-nighters as a college rite fundamental to school life.

Promote sleep and general well-being. If they need more encouragement, tell them that better sleep leads to better grades.

‌Encourage Reasonable Expectations and Limitations

No one can do it all. When you add more to an already crowded plate, something will have to give.

Champion the use of the word “no”

‌FOMO (the fear of missing out) is real. Encourage students to build free time — and a social life — into their schedule. They should avoid overextending themselves with countless extracurriculars or a too-heavy course load.

‌Model organization and planning

‌Time management is an essential skill for both school and life. Help your students learn it.

If they have a large assignment, discuss how you would go about breaking it down and scheduling it across a certain time frame. Remind them to start early and work steadily instead of leaving things to the last minute.

Make perfectionism the enemy

‌Don’t let students fear a “B” or work themselves into a panic over an assignment. Be honest about grading and grade distribution, and encourage them to try to do their best work — not your best work.

‌Protect Yourself

‌It isn’t just the students that are suffering unprecedented burnout numbers  — higher education faculty members are also struggling.

One survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education revealed that many professors are considering changing careers or retiring earlier than they had planned. Even those who intend to stay report lower levels of satisfaction in teaching.

Educators have had to deal with many of the same problems as the students they teach: employment anxiety, changes in teaching formats, work overload, and the general pressure and personal tragedies created by the pandemic.

In addition, educators have had to be a resource for their students, trying to meet both their practical and their emotional needs. Many have experienced compassion fatigue as the crisis has dragged on. 

So take care of yourself as well as your students. Practice what you preach when it comes to a healthy lifestyle and self-care. 

Set boundaries, model work-life balance, and outline explicit times when you will not be available by email. You should also feel free to tell a student when their needs exceed your capacity or abilities. If they need a counselor, tell them where to find one.

‌Use the Resources Available to You

‌Your students aren’t alone — and neither are you. Be vocal about your own needs with colleagues and department heads. Consult with others about their own coping mechanisms, and share yours in turn.

For more advice on how to handle the latest teaching challenges, check back in with the Caduceus International Publishing blog. It addresses pandemic-related concerns as well as evergreen ones.

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