Go to class, go to work, do homework, socialize, take exams, eat, sleep and repeat.
College students and health and wellness experts said college burnout should be addressed on personal as well as institutional levels.
Burnout negatively impacts student’s mental well-being and academic performance, creating unhealthy habits and a life of imbalance, said Sharleen O’Brien, associate dean and director of the Health and Wellness Department at the University of California Santa Barbara.
The Resilience-Informed Skills Education Program at Pepperdine University and the University of California, Santa Barbara UCSB ’s Health and Wellness Program are both actively tackling the issue of burnout through hosting events and providing accessible mental health resources.
“Burnout is when you keep going back, and you’re like, ‘I got a second wind, I got a third wind, I got a fourth wind,’” O’Brien said. “There’s a point where you don’t have another wind, and things start to deteriorate in your life rather than get better.”
College burnout is the development of chronic stress over an extended period of time, according to Malvern Behavioral Health. In a National College Health Assessment study in 2017, 80% of college students reported feeling overwhelmed and 40% of those respondents said this feeling prevented them from functioning, according to Malvern Behavioral Health.
Pepperdine Alumnus (’23) Josh Sullivan said burnout occurs for him toward the end of the semester, and it comes in the form of general academic frustration.
“These are periods of academic frustration, not wanting to be active in the classroom, not wanting to complete projects — things of that nature,” Sullivan said.
A Graphic poll of 51 students found that 88% feel they have experienced burnout.
Lily Nunn, junior at UCSB, said for her, burnout is a lack of motivation.
“I feel like it’s not going to class,” Nunn said. “Sometimes, it’s just hard to motivate yourself to do something.”
Burnout is most prevalent for students toward the end of the semester, Sullivan said.
“That’s representative of pretty much every college student,” Sullivan said. “By the time you get to the end of the semester, you’re just done, and you want it to be over, and you don’t care.”
With numerous social opportunities and academic responsibilities, there are a lot of things competing for a student’s time, O’Brien said. Students often struggle to find time to rest and recharge.
“Burnout comes when students are still trying to find that balance between how much of their alone and rest downtime do they need,” O’Brien said. “And what are they willing to give up in order to get some of what they need to replenish themselves?”
As a student, Nunn said, it can be difficult to balance everything on her plate.
“It can be really hard transitioning, figuring out how to balance going to class, doing your homework and then just taking care of yourself too,” Nunn said. “That’s a lot of burnout; you get kind of numb on wanting to try hard.”
Junior Sports Medicine major Brynn Quesenberry said her classes are demanding and difficult to balance. She said she feels forced to sacrifice doing well in one to do well in another.
“I feel it the heaviest because a lot of my classes are taught in such a way where, in order to be fully successful in them, it needs to be your number one priority class,” Quesenberry said. “So, when I’m trying to juggle prioritizing these different classes at the same time, it gets to be a lot.”
How Students Combat Burnout Individually
It is important for him to set hard boundaries and break up his day, Sullivan said. He said he does about four hours of solid work, but after he reaches his limit, he decides to shift gears and do something else he enjoys.
“I will never stay up late studying things; I won’t do work after 7:30 p.m.,” Sullivan said. “So, let’s cook a meal with friends, or let’s go play volleyball, or let’s veg out on the couch.”
Sleep is the most important part of living a balanced life, Sullivan said.
“I spend a lot of time really trying to live a balanced lifestyle, but it’s hard, and it requires a lot of conscious effort,” Sullivan said.
A productive day is dependent on a good night of rest, Quesenberry said. She often hangs out with friends or watches a TV show to unwind before bed.
“The biggest thing I try to do is ensure that I’m going to bed at a good time,” Quesenberry said. “I tend to not allow myself to take a break until I’m at a good place with my work, and I know that’s not always realistic.”
Nunn said she spends time outdoors to combat burnout. She said the natural and scenic environment at UCSB is especially helpful.
“I’m like a plant,” Nunn said. “I need to photosynthesize. “Last year, my dorm had this huge lawn in front of it, and I would just read a couple chapters of my textbook outside, and that really motivates me.”
How Pepperdine is Combatting Burnout: RISE
One of the ways Pepperdine is trying to help students during times of stress is through the implementation of the RISE Program.
Connie Horton, vice president for student affairs, said she created RISE in 2019, after witnessing the struggles of college mental health, following the Borderline shooting and the Woolsey Fire.
The program ultimately helps students learn skills that help in building resilience whether that be through a six-week course of material or through a variety of events on campus that focus on the six dimensions the program follows such as physical, social, cognitive, spiritual, service and life skills.
For first-year students, RISE required a mandatory six-week course with the HUB for Spiritual Life’s Chapel breakout groups that follow along with the six dimensions. After sending out surveys after the students took the course last fall, their feedback was overall positive, Horton said.
“When we were freshmen, it was required to do the RISE breakout group first semester, and I thought that really helped,” Quesenberry said.
RISE uses surveys to assess student responses to the program.
RISE Director Lee Gobir said RISE assesses the feedback of their events through surveys and ask questions to know what events are benefiting students. She said the survey is on a one-to-seven Likert Scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree, and they take the average of the responses.
“We have both qualitative and quantitative data that we choose to survey people who have gone to an event,” Lee Gobir said.
Seven out of seven is the most common response, but the average ranges from 5.21 to 5.41, Horton said.
The survey asks if the students have learned strategies from the course to help them in their daily lives, if they have applied those skills and if they have shared some of what they have learned with others, Horton said.
Horton said seeing the positive responses from students brought her joy.
“I was pleased with that; if people feel like they’ve learned it, at least intellectually, and they’re applying it, and they’re even talking about it,” Horton said. “It gives me some hope.’’
It is good to have a community space to discuss the challenges of everyday college life with other students going through the same experiences, Quesenberry said.
“I feel like a lot of people don’t utilize RISE or know too much about it,” Quesenberry said.
The Pepp Post poll found that almost 60% of students are not aware of the on-campus resources available to them.
RISE also has resilience coaches that could help students focus on combating negative thoughts as a whole as well as ones that come from burnout, Horton said.
RISE coaching happens on campus in the RISE office at the student’s convenience or on Zoom, Lee Gobir said.
RISE coaching is proving to be successful with Graduate School students, and she hopes that more undergraduate students will take advantage of the resource, Gobir said.
“I would really love for more of our undergraduate students to access coaching because it’s a really unique experience,” Lee Gobir said.
When students start to feel burnout, they should take it as a cue rather than a sign of doom, Horton said.
“I would go to the RISE things even to sort of check in with yourself and all of those six dimensions,” Horton said.
When students begin to feel exhausted from college burnout, they shouldn’t feel intimidated by it, Horton said.
“Don’t be alarmed when you have those feelings,” Horton said.
Burnout can actually be a good thing, Sulllivan said. It depends on the individual, but for some, it signifies hard work and a semester of academic accomplishment.
“In my mind, I think those feelings of burnout aren’t always a bad thing,” Sullivan said. “A lot of times they represent having worked really hard for something and nearing the end of your energy that you’re able to give to a certain project or a certain semester.”
As a whole, Horton encourages students to follow the six dimensions the RISE program highlights to check in with themselves at a time of burnout.
Horton said that, for the spiritual aspect, it is important for students to practice gratitude when thinking the worst about finals and assignments. She said she hopes they realize they have a strong support system at Pepperdine.
“I have the opportunity to attend a school, where I have faculty who care about me, who are excellent in their area, where there’s all kinds of support available,” Horton said.
Burnout can feel isolating, Quesenberry said, and having social events to fight it would be beneficial.
“I feel like, when I’m feeling burned out, I also feel really isolated,” Quesenberry said. “I tend to isolate myself when I’m burned out. So, having more of a community-oriented thing would probably combat that.”
Focusing on the social dimension when experiencing burnout is important because making time for friendships, even when students would rather work alone, is helpful, Horton said.
“You’re really busy, but take some time to be with friends,” Horton said. “Take time, even if it’s studying with friends or walking with friends, when you’re needing to be busy.”
Social support is beneficial when dealing with stressful situations and shows improvement in “better psychological well-being compared to those who have less social support,” according to an article from the Psychology and Research Behavior Management journal.
Something as simple as calling a friend or going to a workout class when students feel burned out is beneficial, Lee Gobir said.
“I promise it’s going to contribute to bringing you up, boosting your mood so that you’re not hitting rock bottom and feeling so burnt out and exhausted,” Lee Gobir said.
University of California Santa Barbara Health’s Wellness Program
Burnout is larger than a single student and needs to be acknowledged on an institutional level, O’Brien said.
“When we talk about burnout in a workplace, we’re not just looking at what is the individual doing to manage their own emotional and psychological well-being,” O’Brien said. “We’re also talking about what are the structures that support a student in taking care of themselves.”
The UCSB Health and Wellness Center celebrated its nine-year anniversary in June. O’Brien said she advocated for physical space on campus for years, and the University granted the Health and Wellness Center a location on campus 2022.
The drop-in center provides a space for students to unwind and join the health and wellness team for some rest and relaxation, O’Brien said.
“You can just sit there and know that you’re in an environment where there’s a bunch of supportive adults and peers who want to support you in finding balance,” O’Brien said.
Meditation can be a great resource for fighting burnout, according to The Health and Wellness Center.
“The students love the meditation,” O’Brien said. “We have a space in the back, where we do all of our programs, but it’s also a space where students can lay down and take a nap.”
The drop-in wellness center had a successful first year, and she is very pleased with the students’ responses so far, O’brien said.
“I’m just now starting to see how students are responding to it, but they really love it,” O’Brien said. “They really need it.”
The Counseling and Psychology Center (CAPS) and the Health and Wellness Center also provide a selection of stress relievers during finals week, Nunn said.
“We have massage chairs and egg chairs and therapy dogs,” Nunn said. “Therapy dogs are always here during finals week; those are my favorite.”
Sleep Can Reignite the Flame
O’Brien said the library at UCSB is open 24 hours, seven days a week, and while it is beneficial for many, it may cause problems for students who are already overworking themselves. She said there are nap pods located in the library to encourage students to take naps when they are studying for long periods of time.
“That’s a structure that is intended to be supportive of students in terms of their needs, but it can also fuel that habits that lead to burnout for students,” O’Brien said. “So, we put nap pods in the library as an example of that.”
Sophia Campion, UCSB alumni and former sleep intern, said UCSB provides spaces of peace like nap stations in order to combat burnout.
“The ways they [UCSB] confront it [burnout] is just holding events like the nap station that encourage students to take a break,” Campion said.
Campion leads the nap station at UCSB for students and invites them to come to take a nap, relax and have a good time.
They have a seven-week sleep challenge that gives students tips on how to track their sleep schedule, what they’re putting in their body and how their diet affects their sleep. It also lets students learn more about their own sleeping habits, according to UCSB Health and Wellness page.
Prior to working at UCSB, O’Brien was in clinical practice and specialized in sleep. O’Brien said, when she arrived, UCSB did not have a sleep program in place, and she felt they needed to connect students with education on the tips and rules of sleep hygiene.
“We would create a sleep challenge that basically goes into the content of helping students understand why those rules are in place and letting them decide what fits for them,” O’Brien said.
The sleep challenge is not about solely changing one’s sleep but also raising awareness about healthy sleep habits, Campion said.
“Just having the knowledge, even if it is not necessarily always put in place, is good for students,” Campion said.
Sleep could directly impact burnout and how well students are able to perform, O’Brien said.
“Mood is the first thing to go when you’re overtired and cranky,” O’Brien said. “So, we really want students to be thinking about the amount of sleep that they need to feel their best.”
Campion said the sleep challenge has been effective in influencing students to participate every quarter.
“Just because they want to relearn the information,” Campion said. “They want to check out the other modules because there are a lot more modules than required.”
After the sleep challenge is over, a data team assesses its success and the feedback from students by comparing the pre and post-surveys they send out to see how students feel about aspects of their sleep, Campion said.
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