Douse College Burnout with These Tips for the New School Year

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek July 27, 2023

​Learning how to prevent—or deal with—burnout is an important lesson for U.S. college students as they soon head to school for the 2023-2024 academic year. Burnout was very real for Jessica Blodgett, SHRM-CP, while studying for a master's degree in human capital analytics and technology at New York University (NYU).

"This is something I struggled with a lot," said Blodgett, who today is director of people, culture and communities at CMMB, an international nongovernmental organization. "I didn't take advantage of student leadership and extracurricular opportunities" while studying international business at Berkeley College, "so I overdid it in grad school."

She was active as a dean's scholar, working with a group of seven high school students throughout the year to prepare them for college, and she volunteered with nonprofit New York Cares, conducting mock interviews for Spanish-speaking individuals. Blodgett also was part of a small group from the Human Capital Department of NYU's School of Professional Studies that traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to learn how human capital analytics and technology can be applied to the future of work.

"Working full time, being a full-time student, and being a student leader," including serving as treasurer for the SHRM student chapter, "I was forced to learn how to stop saying 'yes' to everything and learn how to check in with myself and the priorities I was giving my time and attention to," Blodgett said.

What Is Burnout?

Burnout is different from stress, which is usually more of a short-term feeling. Burnout evolves over time and typically is the "culmination of several stressors that slowly build until the person can't manage anymore," according to the American Counseling Association.

Symptoms include a lack of focus, low energy, sleeping through or no longer attending class, and not sleeping or eating. Students dealing with burnout also may quit attending organizations where they were involved, said Amy Yarlett, director of advising and retention systems at Widener University. The private university in Chester, Pa., is located outside of Philadelphia and had 5,416 students during the 2022-2023 school year.

"Those are definitely signs you want to be aware of to make sure they're getting the help they need to turn this around," Yarlett said. "We see this a lot from mid-semester to the end of the [15-week] semester" for first-year students.

"Trying to balance it all is definitely a challenge for college students, especially for first-year students," who can find the freedom of being on their own challenging. "And each year course requirements get more challenging," she said.

Seniors looking to land their first job out of school while completing their graduation requirements can experience burnout, and course loads for students in general also can factor into burnout, Yarlett added.

For example, nursing students often start their clinicals in their junior year. The clinicals can run for 10 to 12 hours per shift and may include evening or weekend hours. Trying to balance the clinicals in addition to other coursework can cause students to feel burned out, she said.

Most Widener classes are fully in person, with online classes mostly for nontraditional students who work during the day. However, Yarlett said she thinks online classes offer more flexibility for students who are disciplined about daily logins and follow the professor's syllabus.

Preventing, Managing Burnout

There are a number of simple ways to avoid burnout. Yarlett offered the following tips:

Practice good self-care: Eat balanced meals, get at least eight hours of sleep, exercise. "Taking care of the body is the most important first step," she said.

Carve out time for yourself in your schedule, including taking time for mindfulness, and set boundaries. "Setting boundaries for yourself is really, really critical for success," Yarlett said. In addition to using a planner to keep track of your responsibilities, consider keeping a journal to record your feelings daily.

Have structure to your day and use your peak hours to your advantage. If you are most energized in the morning, for example, use that time to focus on the studies you find most challenging. "Without having structure, your day can be lost instantly. A schedule helps you feel in control of your day," she said. "Holding yourself accountable allows you to feel good about what you've accomplished."

Know that location matters. "Finding the right location to study is very, very key," Yarlett said. "Some students need to have it completely quiet. Other people get energized by going to the library and seeing other people studying," or having a regular study group or buddy to hold them accountable.

Seek campus resources. When you start feeling overwhelmed, consider talking to a resident assistant, peer mentor or academic advisor, or seek out on-campus counseling. Many colleges and universities offer free or low-cost counseling services for students who need assistance, according to The College Board, a nonprofit organization founded in 1900.

However, campus counseling centers have seen extreme increases in demand over the past decade, leading to higher caseloads for counselors, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).

"To minimize students slipping through the cracks, schools are dedicating more resources to rapid access and assessment, where students can walk in for a same-day intake or single counseling session, rather than languishing on a waitlist for weeks or months," the APA reported.

Finding What Works for You

What works will differ for every student. Blodgett found maintaining a self-inventory helpful in keeping burnout at bay.

"I learned what I had to prioritize, and even though I had to make difficult decisions to let certain commitments go, it was the best for my mental well-being," she said. "Another thing I do to avoid burnout is honor my 'me-time' rituals. Every Sunday when I was in school, I really tried to give myself that Sunday to disconnect and just pamper myself."

The member of SHRM's Emerging Professional Advisory Council advised students to conduct a personal inventory. This helps to give a full picture of all you have going on, what is the best and worst use of your time, and the cost or benefit of continuing those activities.

Lastly, ask yourself what energizes you, Blodgett recommended.

"What are the things that make you happy? Be fastidiously intentional about doing more of [those things] and not letting anything disrupt that boundary of self-care." 

Other SHRM Resources:
How Emerging Professionals Can Avoid Burnout, SHRM Student Resources, June 2, 2023



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