Please Explain: Burnout
If you’re a uni student, being tired is the new black. But what happens when that tiredness snowballs into exhaustion, and you’re unable to complete even the most basic of tasks? Grace Joseph explains burnout.
DISCLAIMER: I’m obviously not a medical professional (hello, my major is creative writing), and this article is just the result of personal experience and research I've done. For more information, head to the links I've referenced, make an appointment with your GP or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Here's a fact about me: I'm always tired. It doesn't matter how much I sleep (hello, 8:30pm bedtimes), or how much coffee I drink (I'm a regular at, like, four cafés around uni) – my one constant is fatigue.
However, earlier this year, this normal uni-student sleepiness snowballed into full-on exhaustion. I was juggling an intense subject load, a new job, the stress of regular medical appointments (shout out to netball for being really kind to your knees!), and 20+ hours of commuting each week. On top of all that, climate change was doing its thing, the party whose plebiscite put queer people through months of public scrutiny was re-elected, and the Amazon was less 'lungs of the world' and more 'hell on earth'. I lost motivation to study and to exercise, I couldn't handle even the easiest of tasks, and stress turned into numbness.
No prizes for guessing that I was suffering from burnout. In fact, you've likely experienced it too – we've been called the burnout generation. So what exactly is this condition, and why is it so common?
What is burnout?
According to ReachOut, burnout is 'a state of complete mental, physical and emotional exhaustion', while BlackDog describes it as the act of just 'going through the motions' without caring about the results. Personally, I'd define it as the feeling of being stuck in jelly – you can't hear much of the outside world, you can't move as much as you used to, everything is a bit unpleasant and sticky, and the easiest thing to do is just nap (do me a favour and pretend that the metaphor doesn't come undone at the end).
When the term was coined in the 70s, it generally referred to people in professions such as doctors and nurses who, having sacrificed so much of their time and empathy for other people, were left with none for themselves. Nowadays, however, burnout is attributed to an overly stressful work or study life, which bleeds over into your personal life and affects your ability to empathise and your mental wellbeing.
Symptoms of burnout
Of course, symptoms will be different for everyone, and you don't have to experience all (or indeed any) of the below symptoms to be burned out. However, ReachOut has created a pretty comprehensive list of tell-tale signs of burnout.
feeling exhausted and unable to perform basic tasks
losing motivation in many aspects of your life, including your work and friendships
feeling unable to focus or concentrate on tasks
feeling empty or lacking in emotion
losing your passion and drive
experiencing conflict in your relationships with co-workers, friends and family
withdrawing emotionally from friends and family.
There are also a few surefire ways to tell if you are in the process of being burned out, but haven't reached your limit yet. According to HelpGuide, you should take preventative steps now if:
every day is a bad day.
caring about your work or home life seems like a total waste of energy.
you're exhausted all the time.
the majority of your day is spent on tasks you find either mind-numbingly dull or overwhelming.
you feel like nothing you do makes a difference or is appreciated.
It's important to note here that burnout shares a lot of similarities with depression – so please, if you've been experiencing these symptoms for a prolonged period of time, and you're not feeling better despite making changes, book an appointment with your GP to make a mental health plan, or contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or online.
Why is burnout so common?
I don't know one person my age who doesn't constantly work hard because, as Anne Helen Petersen says, we've 'internalised the idea that we should be working all the time', and we're really good at feeling guilty for having some much-needed downtime. My friends are putting long hours in at their bar jobs, doing overnight nursing shifts, studying intense subjects, often for hours on end, searching for new jobs and internships – the list goes on. Point is, we're a non-stop generation, and our mental health is suffering as a result.
So of course we're burning out. Humans are like old laptops: we overheat and whirr when we go too long without being switched off and charged. And the more time between charges, the longer it will take us to get back to our full functioning capabilities, and the more likely it is that we'll just (figuratively) go up in flames.
So, on that note ...
How do you deal with burnout?
Obviously, treatment depends on how burned out you are; however, the general consensus is that cutting down on stressful activities is an excellent place to start. This might mean working less or doing fewer internships, getting a new, lower intensity job, dropping a subject at uni, or taking time off from studying altogether.
Of course, this is all easier said than done – most of us need to work, and the prospect of graduating later due to time off is always scary. If you can't make it work for you (make sure you do your research before you decide, though – I managed to reduce my subject load without adding time to my degree by enrolling in summer subjects!), the alternative is learning to cope with your current situation.
The first port of call, then, is reaching out to friends and family. Spending time with people you love is not a form of procrastination, no matter what your anxious brain is telling you, and love and companionship should always come above everything else.
Additionally, there are all the usual tips for improving mental health, like exercising, eating healthy, practising mindfulness etc. etc. While I don't doubt that these are effective, the reality is that a lot of burned-out people barely have the energy to shower, let alone go out for a jog or meal prep. These suggestions are probably more useful for preventing burn out than treating it, so if you feel yourself slipping down towards exhaustion, schedule in a walk or a workout now.
As always, my ultimate tip is to seek professional help. Talk therapy can seem intense, scary, or perhaps ineffective, but there are many different versions that are effective for different people. I'd recommend starting with a free online discussion with a mental health professional on eHeadspace and Lifeline Chat. UTS has a whole bunch of mental health resources, including free counselling for students! Alternatively, make a personalised mental health plan with your GP – just make sure you let them know that that's what you're coming in for, so they allocate you enough time. And, as always, call 000 or Lifeline on 13 11 14 if you or someone else is in danger.
Burnout is very common, but it is equally very treatable. Be kind to your body and mind and start making changes today. You'll be back to your regular level of sleepiness in no time!
Grace is a second-year Communications/International Studies student, who majors in Creative Writing because she wants to be a barista for the rest of her life. She's probably the only uni student alive who'd rather wake up at 5:30 am than still be awake at 10:30 pm - an early bedtime each day keeps the doctor away