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How to Cope With Academic Burnout at University

By Chloe Lane

Updated April 7, 2021 Updated April 7, 2021
  • Academic burnout happens due to a mix of work and home life pressures.
  • Common symptoms of burnout include a feeling of being unable to keep up, feeling overwhelmed, and exhausted, being unable to sleep and feeling anxious 
  • Better understanding burnout, what causes it and how to prevent it will help to reduce stress levels.

​Picture this. You wake up in the morning with a busy day of lectures and assignments ahead of you. You want to go straight back to bed – the thought of doing any of these tasks seems completely overwhelming to you. You’re feeling irritable and can’t seem to calm yourself down. Everything just feels too much.

If this sounds like you, you may be experiencing academic burnout.

Academic burnout happens when your academic work and your home life seem overwhelming and you think you can’t cope anymore. You might feel tired, anxious and like you can’t focus on anything.

How do I know if I’m experiencing academic burnout?

Experiencing burnout

With classwork piling up, the rocky transition to online learning and the added stresses of a pandemic, burnout is particularly common amongst students.

However, burnout wasn’t an official term until recently, despite being experienced by thousands of people around the world. Burnout was officially recognised in 2019 by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as an occupational phenomenon and was added to their International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).

The problem with burnout is that not everyone recognises it in themselves, explained Professor Craig Jackson, an occupational health psychologist at Birmingham City University

“It’s the flatmates or relatives who say, ‘you’ve been on edge lately’ or ‘you’ve been short tempered,” said Professor Jackson. Listen to people if they're telling you that you seem to have a problem.”

Some of the common symptoms of burnout include a general feeling of being unable to keep up. You think you have too much to do, too many assignments, too many exams, too many lectures to catch up on.

Burnout saps your energy and makes you feel unmotivated and cynical. “You can’t get started on anything because you think there’s so much to do and that whatever you do won’t be enough,” said Professor Jackson.

This overwhelming feeling can cause fatigue, an inability to sleep and a general feeling of anxiety. For some people, this can lead to secondary physical problems such as headaches, backaches and musculoskeletal pain.  

Of course, this emotional and physical strain can also spill over into your home life, making you uncharacteristically short tempered and irritable.

Professor Jackson said: “If you're getting irritable, if you're crabby or you can't sleep because you’re worrying about your work, these are clear signs that burnout is on its way.

“It's not too late to stop it and reverse things but to do that you need to take a bit of time out.”

What causes academic burnout?

Causes academic burnout

Academic burnout is unlikely to be caused by one thing in particular. Many factors will contribute to stress, which over a prolonged period of time may result in academic burnout if not managed properly.

However, there are several aspects of student life, particularly during a pandemic, that are likely to cause added stress and make academic burnout more likely.

Work overload

Having a large amount of academic work to complete by a certain deadline can often add to students’ stress levels. This is especially true when you feel you need to achieve a certain grade.

Professor Jackson said: “When work is done right, it should be enjoyable and feel meaningful and rewarding. That's not so easy when you're a student.”

You might then spend lots of time staring at a computer screen and not enough time exercising or sleeping. This will all contribute to burnout.

Neglecting other areas of your life

When students feel overworked, they often sacrifice other parts of their lives in order to catch up, staying up late to finish essays, cancelling plans, not giving themselves time to relax.

“This means sacrificing exercise, family time, health care and personal care,” said Professor Jackson. “Unless this balance changes, we’re always going to see students burn out because it is just too much for them.”

Accommodation worries

There may also be stresses coming from outside your academic work. Worries about accommodation have contributed to many students’ stress levels during the pandemic. The United Kingdom has seen rent strikes and protests for students unable to access student accommodation during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The fact that students are still paying full rent for an asset which in most cases cannot be accessed will obviously take a toll on their mental health,” said Lydia Jones, the founder of Housemates and the #SaveOurStudents campaign.

#SaveOurStudents is a campaign calling on the government to offer more support for students and accommodation providers during the pandemic.

“Students should be able to focus on their studies, but instead they’re having to fight for their rights and trying to get discounts and refunds on their accommodation,” said Jones. 

Feeling isolated in online learning 

The coronavirus pandemic has brought a sudden switch to online learning. In normal times, there is still a fair amount of self-motivated study, but due to COVID-19, there has been less face-to-face interaction.

Some students might be feeling isolated because of this. When everything’s behind a screen, it can feel like no one is there to support students.“Students don't see the thousands of people in universities who have worked behind the scenes to support students’ well-being.” said Professor Jackson.

A recent survey found that 73 percent of students don’t feel like their university provides adequate mental health support.

Jones believes that governments need to invest more in students’ and provide more mental health first aid training for student accommodation officers as well as academics.

"There hasn't been enough mental health training across higher education as a whole” she said.

Financial stresses

As COVID-19 closes restaurants, pubs and shops around the world, many students have lost their part time jobs. In many cases, this meant the loss of a vital source of income.

Jones said: “Students fuel the part time economy across hospitality, leisure and retail. Students haven’t had security around their part time jobs.”  

She added that most students in the UK also haven’t been able to benefit from any financial help from the government due to their part-time status in their roles. Each of these issues has put more pressure on students, in an already stressful time.

How to prevent academic burnout

Prevent burnout

If you’re starting to feel particularly irritable or experience some burnout symptoms, there are several prevention techniques that will reduce the likelihood of burnout.

Take regular breaks

Professor Jackson explained that, for him, the 20-20-20 technique was incredibly beneficial when spending long days staring at a computer. Every 20 minutes he looks at something 20 metres away for 20 seconds.

This technique reduces the strain on your eyes and allows you to clear your mind before getting back to work. It’s an easy way to reduce stress and prevent eyestrain-induced headaches.

Drink water

It’s often overlooked, particularly when you’re stressed, but dehydration can cause a whole host of problems which can contribute to academic burnout. According to the NHS, dehydration can make you feel dizzy, lightheaded and tired.

Understand the source of your stress

Professor Jackson found that many students seem to blame their academic tutors for their stress, rather than the work itself. He believes that changing your perspective on tutors – as people who can help you rather than add to your stress – can really help to combat academic burnout.

He said: “Something that students could try and do is not to personify their tutors, as the source of the stress, but actually go to that tutor and say: ‘I'm struggling, can you help? can you advise me what to do?’

“Every tutor wants what's best for their students, so students can engage more with the tutors. They were students themselves once. They'll know exactly what it's like and they will be sympathetic and try to help.”

I’m experiencing burnout. Now what?

Burnout

Reach out

If you think you’re experiencing burnout and everything seems a bit overwhelming, the best thing you can do is talk to someone. This might be your personal tutor or a lecturer who you feel comfortable around.

Professor Jackson said: “We are not expecting you to knock yourself out to keep up with the reading. If you find that you're struggling to understand the work, ask and get help. Don't just suffer in silence”.

If the problem extends beyond your workload – and Professor Jackson says that it often does – then telling your tutor about this can be the first step to solving your burnout. If you need support with your mental health, they can direct you to someone who can help you.

Stop comparing yourself

One thing that Professor Jackson has realised while teaching is that students have a tendency to compare themselves with others – particularly when it comes to grades. These students put unnecessary pressure on themselves and if they get a lower grade than their friends they catastrophize and think they’ve failed.

However, this focus on getting a particular grade doesn’t necessarily translate to the job market.

“The real world doesn't really care about the grades as much as you do,” said Professor Jackson. “When I get asked for a job reference, they don't ask what grades the students got for their modules – they're not interested. But they do ask: ‘Was the student hardworking? Was the student enthusiastic? Was the student honest?’”

Break down your problems

“Something a very wise man once said to me is: ‘you can't eat the elephant in one go,’” Professor Jackson said. This just means breaking down your tasks into manageable chunks, which will reduce your stress levels and reduce the impact of burnout.

These smaller tasks will give you better control of the situation you’re in. If the tasks seem smaller, they’re more manageable.

This article was originally published in March 2021 . It was last updated in April 2021

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Written by

As Content Editor for TopUniversities.com and TopMBA.com, Chloe creates and publishes a wide range of articles for universities and business schools across the world. Chloe has a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Reading and grew up in Leicestershire, UK. 

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