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  • Writer's pictureAlex Enders

What is Student Burnout

Updated: Feb 8

Written by: Alex Enders

Edited by: Braeden Waddell

It only seems fitting to kick off my academic coaching blog by addressing one of the biggest challenges many students face during their educational journeys – burnout. 

Put simply, burnout is a combination of exhaustion and cynicism caused by a variety of factors experienced across academia and professional life that can make people question the value of their work. Over time burnout can whittle away a person’s motivation to the point that they leave their chosen profession entirely, whether that’s their job or their area of study.

For students in particular, burnout is a problem that is often overlooked, but can have a major impact on their success and happiness in school. Just this year, a survey of over 1,100 college students found more than 4 in 5 reported experiencing burnout during their academic career.

I first experienced burnout in my third year of college as I climbed through a rigorous music education program that left little time for rest. I was working toward a long-held dream of becoming a music teacher, but my drive to continue school was dwindling despite having every reason to be proud of what I had accomplished. All I could focus on was how tired I was.

I struggled to find academic advisors and counselors that had knowledge of the problem or took it seriously. But once I learned how to spot the signs of burnout, its presence in my life was unmistakable. 

How is Burnout Defined?

“Burnout” is an easy word to throw around, but what does it actually mean? It was first used in a clinical context in the early 1970s by Herbert Freudenberger and was later expanded upon by social psychologist Dr. Christina Maslach. Both Maslach and more recently the World Health Organization define burnout through its three main characteristics:

  • Exhaustion: One of the most common signs of burnout is exhaustion, both physical and emotional. This seemingly endless fatigue can be brought on by several different factors, such as difficulty with coworkers or overwhelming workload.

  • Cynicism: People experiencing burnout often begin to feel disconnected or detached from their work and the people they work with. This negative shift in outlook can be a subconscious way for a burnt-out person trying to protect themself from further harm and exhaustion.

  • Ineffectiveness: Burnout can also be accompanied by a personal sense of inadequacy and a loss of confidence in the workplace. Being worn down by exhaustion and developing a cynical perspective can lead to burnt-out people questioning the impact of their work entirely.

Though these criteria were originally defined as an occupational phenomenon, in the last decade alone there have been numerous studies focused specifically on how students experience burnout. These studies often focus on areas of higher education where burnout is most common such as healthcare, law school and, of course, music students.

Burnout is pervasive, draining, and often overlooked, and it’s what started my journey to becoming a life coach focused on helping students facing the same sort of challenges I did.

My Takeaway

Learning more about burnout was the first step I needed to take as a student in order to truly start recovering from it. Burnout is an extremely complex issue, which makes it virtually impossible to give any ‘one-size-fits-all’ tips to preventing or treating it that are actually helpful; that’s one of the reasons why academic coaching is my preferred way to help burnt-out students.

The biggest turning point in my recovery from burnout was when I started making changes in my school life based on my needs, not other people’s wants or opinions. Working with a coach would have helped me reach this point sooner since coaching is client-centered – it’s a process that’s all about listening to the client, helping them find solutions that work for them, and being an accountability partner for them as they make their own way forward.

Unfortunately I wasn’t aware of the benefits of coaching back when I was burnt-out, but I still managed to find my own path to recovery. My goal as a coach is to help others do the same for themselves by finding and making the changes that are right for them.

Questions from the Coach

Here are a handful of related questions to consider how burnout affects you personally. There are no right or wrong answers, and you don’t have to share your answers if you don’t want to.

  • How do you experience burnout? What do the three signs of burnout look like to you?

  • What strategies have helped you, or people you know, cope with burnout in the past? What else can you try?

I hope you found something valuable in this first article of mine, and I would love to hear from you if you did! I plan on writing several more articles about student burnout including its different causes, common misconceptions about it, as well as more of my own experience with it. My goal is to get an article posted every couple of weeks, so be sure to keep an eye out on my website!

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