Many of us, whether we realize it or not, have experienced “burnout” at some point. Burnout is the feeling of exhaustion due to overwork or feeling overwhelmed by work, and generally results in the decline of our performance and quality of work. Many students experience burnout at some point in the school year. This feeling of total exhaustion typically peaks mid-semester as assignments pile up, we fall into routines of staying up late and cramming, or we just begin to drag our feet as we work through (what feels like) endless math homework. It’s not always easy to differentiate normal levels of stress from burnout. Typically, a student who is feeling academically exhausted and experiencing burnout will have a decreased interest in both academic and non-academic activities, and may be lackluster in their daily routines or even in reaching out to friends. David Ballard, of the American Psychological Association, defines burnout as “an extended period of time where someone experiences exhaustion and a lack of interest in things, resulting in a decline in their job performance.” Knowing that we may all experience this feeling of exhaustion at some point allows us to better prepare for dealing with it and even being able to prevent it.
How can we help our students cope with and minimize the effects of this somewhat inevitable burnout? There are a few simple actions we can take (and remind our students to take) in order to work past this mid-year dip.
Sleep. Sometimes, when we feel overwhelmed by the amount of work we have, especially as a result of procrastinating, it’s tempting to stay up late to finish our required tasks. While this may feel like the most productive thing to do in that moment, it realistically leads to a greater sense of exhaustion, initiates a routine of staying up late, and therefore inhibits our ability to focus the next day. Instead, it may be most helpful to set the task aside and get a good night’s rest. Not only does this improve mood and energy levels in the days following, but also allows us to resume the task with more focus and stamina. Remind your student to follow their nightly routine and try to be in bed by the same time every night—even if that means setting an assignment aside to complete in the morning.
Knowing when to set work aside and start fresh again is important and improves the quality of work and life. Your student may be tempted to work until their project is perfect or finished, but this can begin an exhausting routine and is not sustainable. Instead, try helping your student by having them set smaller goals. This serves a few purposes: it allows them to feel accomplished and encouraged as they work, but it also provides good break or stopping points, similar to short chapters in a book. Smaller goals allow your student to set their work aside while feeling proud of what they have done. They can then take a movement break, or even rest and go to bed. This will help keep them feeling encouraged as well as give them a concrete place to easily pick up the project the next day.
Just as it’s valuable to recognize when to set tasks down, it’s also helpful to to clearly prioritize to-do lists and assignment lists. Knowing which tasks are most important versus which tasks can be completed later will allow your student to feel more organized and have a better sense of what they need to focus on. This can help the daily tasks feel less overwhelming and create consistency, which will improve their focus and energy. With this in mind, it can also be helpful to intersperse small and realistic tasks between the larger, potentially looming projects so your student can feel a sense of accomplishment throughout their work day, helping them stay encouraged and keep up the momentum with completing their to-do list.
Finally, remembering to incorporate movement into our daily routines is imperative. Taking frequent breaks to get up and move helps us reset and refocus while also improving our mood and energy levels. Movement breaks can not only shake the feeling of monotony in our days, but they provide a consistent and dependable routine—especially when school feels overwhelming.
By understanding that burnout and exhaustion are more common in students than we assume, we can take precautionary steps to prevent it or make informed decisions to help our students cope more effectively. Support your student in getting enough sleep, maintaining consistent routines, recognizing when to set tasks aside, and continuing to incorporate movement into their days to help them prevent or deal with the effects of burnout.