My College:
Health & Safety

Home for the Summer...and Feeling Burned Out

Vicki Nelson

There’s something going on with our students right now, and it can be hard to put a finger on. I saw it in many of my students this semester and you may see it as your student comes home — or emerges from their room as their online semester ends.

What’s Going On?

There’s been a lot of attention recently on college student mental health. A growing number of students are facing serious mental health issues and we need to pay attention. CollegiateParent just shared a series of articles about student mental health.

What I saw in my students, and you may recognize in yours, was not serious depression or anxiety. It was physical and mental exhaustion, lack of motivation, and difficulty getting things done.

There are several names for what students are feeling — burnout, pandemic fatigue, pandemic blues, or what New York Times writer Adam Grant calls “languishing.” Whatever we choose to call it, it’s the opposite of thriving, and it’s a lot “like looking at the world through a foggy windshield.”

What Do We Know About Burnout?

Students have described their feeling in various but similar ways. “I don’t feel the point of it.” “My mind never gets a chance to fully rest.” “I’m struggling to do the bare minimum.”

We may recognize the symptoms of burnout because it is a common feeling right now. We may even be experiencing it ourselves. The prolonged stress of this year has taken a toll.

The Mayo Clinic describes the following symptoms of job burnout and they line up perfectly with what I saw in many of my students:

  • Critical or cynical about work
  • Drag yourself to work
  • Irritable or impatient
  • Lack energy to be productive
  • Hard to concentrate
  • Lack of satisfaction from your achievements
  • Physical symptoms: headaches, stomach issues, insomnia

Other symptoms of burnout that are common in students include:

  • Procrastinating and missing deadlines (more than usual)
  • Missing classes (also more than usual)
  • Feeling empty, with a lack of ideas
  • Aimlessness or stagnation
  • Fatigue and exhaustion
  • Frustration
  • Brain fog and feeling detached
  • Feeling overwhelmed, emotionally drained and unable to meet demands
  • No sense of accomplishment
  • Bored and uninterested in things they previously enjoyed

It’s a long list, but essentially it boils down to having nothing left in the tank and nothing left to give.

The Race Was Longer Than We Anticipated

We’ve all had a difficult year. Last spring we thought we were running a 5K (3.1 miles) and then we thought maybe the pandemic would become a 10K (6.2 miles). But the finish line kept moving. It turned out we were embarking on a full 26.2 mile marathon.

If you’ve ever watched the end of a marathon, you know that most runners cross the finish line with nothing left. Sometimes they crawl. This pandemic year, with its social distancing, remote learning and open-ended, ambiguous timeline has left many students feeling that way. They’re totally spent.

We have all been in high-intensity, emotional survival mode for longer than our energy can sustain and we’re exhausted. The Mayo Clinic lists five primary causes of burnout that again perfectly describe my students.

  • Lack of control – an inability to influence decisions that affect you (Lots of new campus rules!)
  • Unclear expectations (What exactly do you want me to do in my remote class?)
  • Extremes of activity — you need constant energy to remain focused (Remote assignments take a lot of extra work and Zoom class can be so boring.)
  • Lack of social support — you feel isolated (Will my professor be available? When can I spend time with my friends?)
  • Work-life imbalance — your work takes up so much of your time and effort that you don’t have the energy to spend time with family or friends (I never leave my room or my computer screen!)

Students have not only experienced losses this year, many had no break this spring. Many colleges cancelled spring break, which made Covid sense, but gave students no opportunity to decompress, sleep and rest, recharge, catch up on work, or take a break from routine.

What Can Be Done to Help?

Experts tell us there are things we can do to address burnout or that languishing feeling. You may need to help your student understand steps they can take toward recovery.

  • Name and validate the feeling. It is real.
  • Understand that you are not alone.
  • Focus on little things and small wins. Seek the positive.
  • Get active and engaged. Get totally involved or immersed in something.
  • Seek activities that have manageable difficulty. A small struggle followed by a win provides a sense of accomplishment.
  • Remember that burnout happened over the course of a year. It will take time to recover.

“What Do You Need Right Now?”

When your student returns home (or completes their remote semester), they need to recharge. Their battery is running low.

Let your student take the lead, but guide gently. Start with the question, “What do you need right now?”

Here are a few suggestions to share with your student, and they may be even better if you can do some of them together. You may need recharging as well. It's an opportunity to reconnect and relax together.

  • Get more sleep.
  • Minimize the importance of grades — for now. There will be time to discuss these later.
  • Rethink summer school for this year. Even if your student needs to make up some extra credits; this year, kicking back may be more important.
  • Don’t overschedule the summer. Spend time hanging out and relaxing with friends and family. Just enjoy being in each other’s presence.
  • Give your student space. Listen carefully between the lines when they do share or need to vent, but don’t push.
  • Minimize screen time. Take a break from screen fatigue.
  • Get outside! Take a hike, go on a picnic, go to the beach. Enjoy being out, being in the fresh air — and maybe going maskless!
  • Throw yourself into a project. Look for something physical and small enough that you can see the end result and have a feeling of accomplishment. Clean the garage or attic, plant a garden, build a shed, paint a room, clean up a local park.
  • Take on a challenge. Learn something new, try a new craft or creative endeavor, learn to play an instrument, or train for a 5K.
  • Feel good by helping others. Volunteer, or join a group project. Tap positive energy and reconnect with your community.
  • Spend time with friends. But ease back into social life — social activities can carry their own stress.
  • Try mindfulness activities like yoga or meditation. Some meditation apps (such as Headspace) offer student discounts.
  • If possible, find a change of scene. Go camping, take a family vacation to a new place, visit friends you’ve missed.
  • Practice the art of “savoring.” Appreciate the small moments. Notice the tiny victories, special moments, good food, or beautiful scenery.
  • Celebrate! Celebrate anything, not just big occasions such as an anniversary or birthday. Look for reasons to celebrate and go all out with food, decorations, music. There are all sorts of surprising holidays coming up. Who doesn’t love National Chocolate Ice Cream Day, World Juggler’s Day, or National Pink Day?
  • Be patient. Although we seem to be emerging from the worst of this pandemic, recovery will not be instant. It’s okay to need some time to recover and recharge.
  • Finally, help your student find a fresh start and think proactively about the future. Create a plan to get there and focus on long-term goals.

In spite of our difficult year, many students may actually be doing better than we think.

Although discussions about mental health are important, and it's critical to notice the warning signs of a serious problem, we sometimes forget that students are resilient. Most will recharge their batteries and bounce back — with a little help from us.

After a year in survival mode, you can help your student focus on a new goal. The opposite of languishing is flourishing, finding a feeling of overall well-being. Help your student look for that sense of meaning, mastery and mattering that makes life better for everyone.

Vicki Nelson has more than 35 years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She also weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She established her website, College Parent Central, to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance and appropriate involvement as they prepare for and navigate the college journey with their student. Vicki also serves as co-host of the College Parent Central podcast.
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