The real consequences of burnout

By Jocelyn Gardner ‘17
Mental Health Columnist

Lisa M. Gerry writes in her article about burnout, “I’m of the mindset that while I may not be the smartest or most talented person in the room, I’ll earn my spot at the table with impressive work ethic...Looking back, it’s obvious that my lifestyle wasn’t sustainable. But back then, I wore my workaholism like a badge of honor.” As a student, I’ve definitely related to this feeling, and I’m sure that many college students also have at some point.
In my first article, I mentioned the fact that there is a culture in college that promotes taking on excessive amounts of stress. Actually, this stressful lifestyle probably starts in high school or even earlier. Obviously, putting that much strain on ourselves for an extended period of time takes a massive toll on our bodies — and I am just as guilty as the next person when it comes to this. All we really lose is sleep, right? Wrong. Burnout is real.
There are a few key differences between burnout and stress, just to make that distinction clear right off the bat. According to, burnout is caused by “unrelenting” or chronic stress rather than simply too much stress at a given time. Burned out people do not have any motivation or belief that their situation can improve, whereas “stressed people can still imagine, though, that if they can just get everything under control, they’ll feel better.” Stress is characterized by over-engagement and a sense of urgency and anxiety more so than burnout, which manifests itself in “physical and emotional exhaustion; feelings of cynicism and detachment; and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.”
Of course, this doesn’t answer the question: what is burnout exactly? There is no official definition or diagnosis, and burnout is most often discussed in terms of occupational burnout. I personally think that this overlooks and belittles the extreme duress endured by students. Burnout does not occur overnight, instead slowly progressing as the stress continues. Despite what many people think about conditions that start in the brain, there are clear physical indications such as exhaustion, sleep changes, eating changes and increased illness due to weakened immune system. There are also key cognitive changes, like difficulty concentrating and poor memory and attention. As you can imagine, these are hard enough to deal with without accounting for the emotional difficulties, which can include symptoms such as loss of enjoyment, detachment, anger or frustration, apathy, hopelessness, self-doubt, escapism (including drug and alcohol use and addictive behaviors) and cynicism. These all lead to isolation, avoidance of responsibilities, poor performance, lack of productivity and interpersonal problems.
Another important idea to remember is that we all feel at least some of these symptoms at some point. If they persist, however, it can be burnout. In addition, many of these signs are indistinguishable from depression, and too much stress can also appear as or turn into anxiety. All of these conditions should be taken seriously. There are also different degrees of burnout — it is not an all-or-nothing state. Paying attention to warning signs of burnout can help thwart its progression into severity.
Like I said, this does not happen overnight. Knowing the causes can help in prevention. These causes can come from many different areas of life — not just work. Work plays a monumental role, however. Monotonous, unchallenging work, chaotic or high-pressure environments, lack of control over work, lack of positive feedback or recognition and/or unclear or demanding expectations can make someone susceptible to burnout. The kind of lifestyle typical to college campuses is also a burnout breeding ground. Lack of sleep, too many commitments and responsibilities, social stress, lack of supportive relationships and lack of relaxation can add to the heap of stress from work. Personality does actually factor in as well. We are high achievers, workaholics, perfectionists, etc., and while there is nothing wrong with working hard, there is a point where the saying “too much of a good thing” definitely applies. College applications for many people involved a need to prove oneself, which can lead to feelings of competitiveness and inadequacy. Show perfection, and hide anything that falls short. In a way, college can turn our drive into our downfall. I see it almost as caring so much or feeling so stressed that one surpasses a threshold, resulting in burnout.
Once one begins feeling overwhelmed by stress or even burned out, there is not much that one can do, due to the structure of college. One cannot simply take a week or two off completely. There do not seem to be, in my experience, any real allowances for something like burnout, which does not have a diagnosis code and is not widely discussed. This does not mean that you are powerless if you think you are experiencing burnout. Taking steps to control the factors of your life that you can could help you deal with the parts you can’t change.
Unfortunately, this often means compromising, which goes against our habits and what we are told by this culture. You may have to work below your usual standard, whether that means focusing on completion of assignments rather than getting the A or lightening the load. This does not make you inferior; taking breaks is not slacking off. Rather, it is making sure you can sustain your work habits. Healthy habits and alternate activities to work are immensely effective in fighting burnout. Perhaps do something creative, especially if your work is very repetitive. Time management and organization help — even actions as seemingly trivial as cleaning up or making a to-do list or calendar. Everybody works differently, so I would advise trying a number of different options to keep your mind healthy. Communicate with your professors as well — they want to help and cannot do so if they are unaware. What does one have to lose in doing this, anyway? Talk to your friends, too. Having a support system can provide a break from the grind, whether that is by making you laugh, giving you someone to confide in, or having someone to help you focus and break bad habits. This will also help prevent the damage that stress puts on interpersonal relationships.
Humans are not made to focus for those five-hour cram sessions in the library during midterms. We should not be asked to perform superhuman tasks (although, inevitably, this does seem to be the expectation in society). Managing stress is a lot easier said than done, and takes a great conscious effort. Speaking from experience, it’s much better to deal with prevention than with burnout.