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Regular version of the site

How to Avoid Study Burnout

Student can suffer from depression and other signs of emotional burnout if they study too hard or choose the wrong specialization, HSE researchers have found.

Study Author:

Elena Kudriavtseva, Associate Professor at the HSE Department of Management in St. Peterbsurg.

During the first year of studies, students already often feel disappointed and exhausted. Such burnout in freshman students can be caused by many reasons, such as an abundance of tasks, new classmates, the ‘wrong’ subjects, and even comments left by classmates on social media. Not everyone can manage their reactions to these situations.

As a result, by the time they reach their later study  years, such students have trouble in mastering their subject, and some of them even drop out. ‘High-achieving students may drop out due to adjustment problems’, says Elena Kudriavtseva in her paper ‘New educational opportunities and student burnout’*. Freshmen need help in adjusting to university life. Studying their psychological specifics will assist in preventing emotional exhaustion.

From a burnt out student to a bad professional

Burnout can manifest itself as feelings of confusion, ennui, and weakness. The previous aims and values disappoint, and new ones haven’t emerged yet. It’s hard to study and work, to become a professional in such a state. It may lead to professional burnout, when an individual loses interest in their job, Elena Kudriavtseva noted.

The risk group includes, first of all, doctors, teachers, social workers, psychologists, and managers. Representatives of these social professions work with people and their problems, which takes a lot of emotional effort. In fact, studies of emotional burnout started from research into the state of health of social workers. Herbert Freudenberger, an American psychologist, studied volunteers in the 1970s and was the first to describe the emotional exhaustion syndrome. He also revealed that his ‘patients’ were having a professional crisis at the same time.

The job of doctors, teachers, and psychologists is emotional. The burden of other people’s problems can exhaust them. These professionals need a margin of emotional safety and stress resilience. If they lack it, they may burn out as early as at the stage of their studies. This is what often happens in students of social professions due to the intensive experience of ‘other people’s negative emotions’.

Reasons for burnout

In adults, burnouts may be provoked by hard and unappreciated work, conflicts with friends and family, disappointment in themselves, and unfulfilled ambition. (see ‘Chasing Success May Lead to Burnout’). Maximalists and perfectionists burn out more often than the others, due to their approach.

Students have their own specific reasons for burnout. They include a large study load (including online courses and projects) and a very wide circle of contacts (with teachers, classmates etc). Elena Kudriavtseva also emphasized such risks as abundant communication on social networks, including that for study purposes. A student is always the focus of attention and receives comments and feedback on their actions. This also increases the stress, the expert believes.

‘Concentration of communication in the educational environment intensifies the study context’, the researcher added, and this ‘intensification’ becomes the basis for the burnout.

How to avoid burnout from stress

Study-related stress can be relieved by various means, such as, for example, psychological training sessions (see ‘Social Workers Seek to Standardise Their Emotions’). They have to learn to regulate their mental state. It’s also useful to rotate various activities and to have interesting hobbies in addition to the studies.

What helps students fight the emotional deficit?

  • Support from their teachers. Their emotional resilience also positively impacts the students;
  • Participation in research, which means active involvement in the ‘academic context’. This helps the students feel useful, to ‘taste’ the research and the advantages of team work;
  • Additional social activities, such as participation in student governance (it also helps them feel important);
  • eam spirit in the class, a feeling of fellowship.

How burnout develops

The first and the fourth years of study turned out to be crucial for students’ mental state, the researcher concluded. Half of the students don’t have signs of burnout during the first year (they are calm and open). At the same time, about one third of the students have first symptoms of this condition. During the second year, it grows, and the situation worsens. During the third year, the students’ feelings are stabilized. And by the fourth year, the story resolves. ‘Some of the students get rid of the burnout, and some of them develop a negative condition’, the expert explained.

Elena Kudriavtseva reflected the changes of psychological condition in the students’ individual cards, which are updated once a year (see Appendix 1). Such cards allowed her to track the burnout of junior years’ students. These ‘tracks’ have three phases, each of which gains momentum gradually:

  • Stress. The person experiences psycho-traumatic conditions, is dissatisfied with themselves, ‘can’t see the way out’, feels alarmed.
  • Resistance. The person is emotionally and mentally disoriented, it’s difficult for them to do their job.
  • Exhaustion. Emotional deficit develops, physical health is damaged.

Targeted support for troubled students

The analysis of the students’ individual cards showed the following.

  • The burnout track doesn’t depend on the students’ areas of studies and educational opportunities. Both students of high schools and universities become disillusioned;
  • Individual cards can help choose the best strategy to help the students, such as keeping balance in work with underachievers. If the requirements grow, they may resist more actively. Generally, it should be taken into account that ‘the stronger the burnout in student, the less sensible their reaction to any feedback’, the expert emphasized;
  • The cards help forecast the students’ academic activities, such as involvement in various study forms, responsibility for task implementation, and readiness to make an additional effort. It can be clear long before the winter exam period, which of the freshmen are at risk of dropping out.

At the end of the day, individual student cards help explain their academic achievements and prevent dropout, the researcher concluded.

The study was based on monitoring the psychological state of students at the HSE Department of Management in St. Petersburg (2016-2016), as well as the analysis of well-being of pedagogics and management students at the Amur River Region State University.

*The paper was presented at the Higher School of Economics at the 7th International Conference of Higher Education Researchers.

December 21, 2016