Professor Fortier reminds students that “we are human beings, not doing; so do less and be more.” Image: Dasser Kamran/Fulcrum.
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With a new semester underway, it’s important to recognize your limits

The new year marks a time to make new goals and form new habits that are often dumped. We bring many things into 2021, such as new hobbies, new COVID case records, and new complications.

As students usher into another virtual term, it’s crucial to monitor both mental and physical health in isolation. One of the biggest and more common threats, especially to students, is burnout. 

What is burnout?

Dr. Tim Simboli, executive director of Canadian Association for Mental Health (CAMH)’s Ottawa Branch defines burnout as those who are experiencing “a deep dissatisfaction with the work that you do, the kind of work you do, and the people you’re working with.”

“It’s characterized by a lot of extrusion, a lot of intolerance. ‘What’s the use?’ kind of thinking. It really is that they’ve surrendered.” 

Although the World Health Organization has officially recognized burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon,’ burnout can occur in any aspect of one’s life, including in school, parenting, and personal relationships.

One of the more troubling aspects of burnout is that continual stress can lead to a significant lack of motivation in a person, causing them to second-guess their interests and ambitions.

Health and wellness website HelpGuide outlines physical, emotional, and behavioural symptoms of burnout, which includes changed sleep or eating habits, lowered immune system, increased irritability, and feelings of self-doubt. 

Dr. Michelle Fortier, a professor with the University of Ottawa’s School of Human Kinetics, outlines three key under-recognized symptoms of burnout. “The first one is emotional exhaustion, which is feeling the fatigue (and) worn out by either your work or school or both of them,” she explained.

“The second component is depersonalization, and that means you’re basically very cynical, you have a lack of empathy towards others. The third one is a lack of personal accomplishment, so you have very low levels of confidence and satisfaction related to what you’re doing.”

Bounds of stress or burnout?

Not to be confused with stress, burnout can be caused by issues such as a lack of control over one’s workload or responsibilities, lack of social support, dysfunctional working conditions, and a work-life imbalance.

“Feeling a lack of connection with other people, not feeling validated at all in their context, or outward, would be kind of some of the common symptoms,” added Fortier.

It can be difficult to differentiate between symptoms of burnout and those of a mental illness, such as depression or an anxiety disorder. Typically, burnout is caused by experiencing recurring stressful periods.

“Burnout I think happens when we can’t fix it,” Simboli said. “The stress has been around for a couple of bad weeks, it turns into a bad month. It starts to go on longer and longer.”

Additionally, it’s no surprise COVID-19 has caused a dramatic increase in burnout, affecting people in different occupations and living conditions. 

A survey observing medical staff burnout in Canada concluded that approximately “78 per cent of nurses who responded … reported feeling a sense of burnout in the previous month.”  

Dr. Fortier estimates that rates of depression and anxiety have increased at least a third as a result of COVID-19.

“When the workload is really high, which is the case with COVID, there’s more likelihood of people burning out,” she said. “Also, they’re isolated … they don’t have the same social circle, they don’t have access to gyms and things like that amplifies the symptoms.”

Extinguish the burn

Fortunately, there are several methods to combat and recover from burnout —  even if you may find yourself in the midst of it.

Simboli acknowledges that even in the best of conditions, burnout can be difficult to overcome. When discussing burnout, he advises people to reflect as to why they decided to choose the path they did and personalize their experience.

“Adapting your job so you can do it better and feel more rewarded in it is possible,” he said. “You can do lateral kinds of things, or expand your scope.”

It’s advised you initially meet your basic needs, such as getting adequate sleep and eating. The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that people over the age of 18 try to get at least seven hours of sleep. Small and frequent, yet nutritious meals are also encouraged, along with increased amounts of water. 

While in a recovery period, it’s advised to set personal goals and organize for the short-term future, such as redistributing your workload over the following days and make your health a priority.

Fortier advocates for the prospect of stress management courses for students at the University of Ottawa, such as those offered at Laurentian University. She also emphasizes the importance of self-care, restorative activities and off days.

“On the weekends, you’re actually doing no work at all during the day, you know, basically showering yourself in self-care, taking a bath, going for a walk, just unwinding,” she said. 

“I think one really good recommendation for burnout would be unplugged rest. So, when you’re not actually plugged into your phone or even Netflix. Our brain needs to rest so things like daydreaming.”