Burnout: Students feel it too

In 2019, the International Classifications of Diseases in 2019 was updated with a new definition of burn-out. WHO now recognises three diagnosable symptoms: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; feeling negative towards one’s career; and reduced professional productivity. [source]

So why, in a pandemic which forced the world to a standstill, has burn-out become almost impossible to avoid? WHO defines burn-out as “an occupational phenomenon. ” However, in a recent interview, Alice, a University of Edinburgh student, explained that she had “…definitely experienced burnout during the pandemic in more ways than one, including mentally, emotionally, and socially.”

Prior to the pandemic, burn-out was an explanation for the consequences of the capitalist ‘work hard, don’t play, work harder’ mantra. The idiom, ‘if you bootstrap hard enough, you’ll come out on top’ [source] encourages employees to burn through their energy by sacrificing social lives, sleep, and exercise in the pursuit of promotion.

According to WHO, burn-out “refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.” [source] However, on paper, the pandemic’s restrictions on social contact emulated the conditions of burnout causing acute stress; fear affected sleeping patterns; low energy levels and motivation; as well as gym closures restricting exercise. [source]

Julia Fragga explains that “burn-out is a condition that stems from working too much.”  [source] Medically, burn-out is a result of working too hard, employees burn out in the same way a lit fire will eventually run out of fuel. However, for many workers and students, the pandemic meant that nothing was happening. If you can forgive me for the poetry, some people didn’t have the fuel to burn through. As Alice explained to me in our interview:

“I am stuck in a rut mentally, and the constant pressure to do something with the ‘time off’ at the beginning of the pandemic has resulted in a lot of anxiety, as I feel that I should be doing something with every second of my time. Even though mentally I am overwhelmed with the situation and find focussing extremely difficult.” 

From x2-speed lectures to hours doom-scrolling on TikTok, there is an atmosphere amongst students of a shared inability to sustain motivation and commit time to assignments; clear symptoms of burn-out. However, as Alice explained, this academic exhaustion is also in competition with the crippling obligation students feel to overcompensate for lost time by throwing themselves into extra-curricular activities and busy social lives. 

Second year ‘Covid-fresher’, Katie Sansbury, explained how she burnt out by spreading herself too thin across post-lockdown opportunities. As dance captain for EUSOG’s Legally Blonde; jazz team leader for EUMDS; and with places on three dance competition teams, Katie has found herself victim to the ‘curse of the Covid-fresher’ and  “…certainly committed to more activities than was really viable to try and ‘catch-up’ on missed experiences”. 

The pang felt by students to compensate for the time and experiences missed out on often leaves academia onto the back-burner. Now, in the wake of having newfound freedoms and challenging prioritisation, it seems that a lot of students are burning too quickly through their depleted energy stores.

Adapting to the ever-changing circumstances of lockdown is hard. Students are grieving the experience they could have had whilst panicking about the ephemerality of the time we have at university. People are emotionally, academically, and socially exhausted, but the return of ‘work hard, work harder’ pressure discourages students from taking time to relax. As we learn to navigate student life in the wake of the pandemic, something students can work on may be getting to know themselves and how they can balance leisure, socialising, and work and honour their capacities.   

Illustration by Denis Yalcin