Students are often nervous about the prospect of covering a substantial amount of material in just a few years. Even the most resilient of students can encounter challenges throughout their educational journey. Hence why it is important that universities equip their pupils with the psychological tools required to help students manage their time and workload efficiently without burning out. In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Day, St. George’s University, School of Medicine, Grenada, West Indies in the Caribbean explains what burn out means and shares simple interventions that students can implement to prevent feeling burnt out.
Symptoms of burnout and intervention
Burnout stems from persisting academic or workplace stress and is often conceptualized feeling exhausted, out of energy (emotionally and physically) or apathetic, having negative emotions or cynicism related to one’s studies and suffering a reduced sense of personal or academic accomplishment.
Left untreated, burnout can cause people to become distracted, depressed, and anxious which can impact their academic performance and relationships.
There are a couple of things that students can do to reduce their chances of burnout. However, these interventions are all based on one important element which is to improve the relationship between the individual and their work/studies.
1. Take multiple breaks
This is probably something you’ve been told a thousand times, but we’re going to say it louder for the people in the back: You cannot sustain productivity levels without taking proper deliberate (AWAY from your desk) breaks.
This means a combination of doing things that are relaxing and undemanding (e.g. watching an episode on Netflix or sitting down for a proper lunch break), and things you genuinely enjoy (e.g. meeting up with a friend or doing a hobby). This also means logging off for the night, having some time to unwind and getting some proper sleep.
2. Say no
If you notice yourself experiencing higher levels of fatigue, be wary of taking on more demands. You might experience an initial sense of guilt but it’s important to ride through this so that you don’t contribute further to your own exhaustion.
3. Peer support
This might be coming together at the end of the day to cook dinner together or talking remotely over Zoom. Having a sense of common humanity i.e. “that we’re in this together”, helps to promote collaboration rather than cynicism.
4. Carving out time for exercise
Whatever this looks like for you, exercise helps to restore energy associated with burnout. Exercise should physically take you away from your books, so be wary of bringing notes into the gym or listening to lectures through your headphones.
5. Challenging unhelpful thoughts and bitterness
You might experience negative thoughts such as “the faculty don’t care”, or maybe even that “the university doesn’t care”, but it is really important not to engage in these thoughts. Believing that the organization isn’t supportive of your goals is a major factor contributing towards burnout, so instead focus your attention on the ways in which the school does encourage you to do well (support services, office hours etc…).
6. Support services
Whilst you’re in that mindset of paying attention to ways in which the school offers to support you, ensure that you take full advantage of these services. Using the resources available to you, will help to decrease some of your perceived demands. For example, at SGU, we encourage all our student to work with the mental health experts at our Psychological Services Center where we provide a safe space for them to process their feelings.
7. Focus on your wins
Managing your expectations of yourself is also incredibly important. Recognize every small area of progress and growth in your studying methods or in following lectures or small incremental improvements in your exam performance.
Acknowledge and express difficult feelings you have towards whatever stage you are at in your academic journey. Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel such a huge range of emotions, and that some days will be less than perfect.
Because burnout erodes empathy and professionalism, it’s important to find ways to return to yourself and remember who you are and what you hope to achieve in your life. Mindfulness training, compassion training, and other contemplative practices that help you slow down, be in the moment, and access your inner resources are vital for preventing and addressing burnout. Organizations as diverse as Google and the Harvard Schools of Medicine and Business have instituted and promoted mindfulness training for employees, students and faculty to provide an antidote to burnout.
10. And one more thing
You are not alone. Burnout hasn’t just happened to you; it can happen to anyone embedded in a system that demands much. Everyone in the system is vulnerable to burnout. Understanding this important idea will help you build your own specific plan for reclaiming your energy and passion for what you are doing.