A recent article by Anne Helen Petersen published in Buzzfeed News shed much-needed light on a condition called burnout among young adults, a term first coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974 to describe a state of exhaustion, listlessness and inability to cope caused by severe stress and high-pressure environments.
Freudenberger originally used the term to describe a condition he saw in “helping” professions (i.e. doctors, nurses), but these days the term is commonly applied to many age groups and professions, including students.
One scientific summary from 2017 noted some studies placed the prevalence of burnout in certain professions as high as 70 per cent (medical oncology). For medical students, this number was 31 per cent. Rates of burnout among students in other faculties are largely non-existent, but another set of statistics published on Statista in 2017 found about 55 per cent of Americans aged 18 to 29 years frequently experienced stress that year.
“Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done? Because I’m burned out,” Petersen writes, describing her difficulties scheduling appointments, cleaning her car, answering emails.
“Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it—explicitly and implicitly—since I was young.”
We’re sure you’ve felt some of these feelings too: That inability to move your cursor to open Brightspace or that time you lived off Kraft Dinner and Mr. Noodles for a week because you couldn’t force yourself to make the walk to Loblaws. It’s nearly impossible to find any sense of calm when we’re balancing five full-time classes that might just be leading to tight or jobless industries, while we’re also working part-time jobs at minimum wage to pay off our student loans, tuition, rent and grocery bills. Mixing in trying to maintain a social life, health and fitness, and extracurriculars makes our heads spin.
Petersen poignantly underlines the fact that millennials (and their younger counterparts, Generation Z, if I may add) have been brought up in a world where feelings of burnout are the norm, congealed with rare and brief tides of stunted relaxation. While corporations continue to profit off of the self care movement meant to tackle stress and burnout that may well be helpful to some, from essential oils to salt lamps, we need to take on the root causes of burnout in post-secondary students as well before our generation becomes a smouldering pile of embers.
As Petersen explains it, “burnout is of a substantively different category than “exhaustion,” although it’s related. Exhaustion means going to the point where you can’t go any further; burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years.” And that’s why it’s so important to address it now.
Whether this looks like profs from the same faculty coordinating calendars so that multiple midterms don’t fall on the same day, or being more lenient with extensions or late assignments is up for discussion, doesn’t really matter, as long as that discussion takes place.
The medical school at the U of O made a good step in 2016 to address burnout in their students by introducing mandatory meditation sessions, but all faculties need to follow suit with their own support systems catered to students specific needs.
On the other hand, burnout impacts professors and staff just as much as students. A recent study from Telfer School of Management prof Ivy Bourgeault, looking into the mental health issues facing professors and six other professions, found one in four employees took a leave of absence, usually due to work overload or poor relations with employers.
Some might try to write this off as typical millennial/Gen Z behaviour, trying to blame others for our struggles. But this isn’t a sappy editorial begging for your pity: It’s a call for action, a demand to address a crucial issue among post-secondary students. It’s time for post-secondary institutions in Ontario, Canada, and across the globe to start treating the widespread rates of burnout among their students—and their staff and faculty members—before it’s too late.