As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, so does Bradley student burnout
Student burnout isn’t a new phenomenon, though the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly drawn more attention to the issue that affects both students and faculty members alike.
Valerie San Juan, associate professor of Psychology at Bradley University, says the burnout felt this semester is particularly unique because it's been accumulating for quite a while.
“I think burnout in this specific sort of semester really speaks to collectively the fatigue we’ve all been feeling for a long time, and the impact it's had on our ability to function mentally and obviously that spills into our behaviors as well,” she explains.
Attending school and performing well academically is already difficult on its own, but the pandemic has imposed new challenges and a level of burnout that seems to be more severe than is typical of a normal academic year prior to COVID.
Dr. Wendy Schweigert, associate chair of the Department of Psychology, and Liberal Arts and Science Student Success coordinator at Bradley University, explains how Bradley University utilizes an alert system that faculty members can use when they notice a student struggling, such as if they stop attending class or responding to emails, two signs of student burnout.
“While the number of alerts is not significantly different from previous semesters, it seems like the severity of the alerts, that these students are saying, ‘Yeah, I’m really struggling with my mental health right now,'" said Schweigert.
She also says that this struggle isn’t confined to one specific grade level or year.
“We looked at some behavioral measures, and it turned out that the stress was just equally distributed across all four years … that people were showing the same problems of maybe not attending classes, of maybe not doing well on exams, regardless of what year,” Schweigert said.
Furthermore, she noticed students were essentially split into two separate groups when they returned back to campus at the beginning of this semester. Some were excited to be back on campus and showed a certain level of resilience that allowed them to do well. Others returned stressed for a variety of possible reasons, which hindered their resilience and caused a negative reaction. This trend was consistent from freshmen to seniors.
“The students who would have been struggling were just struggling a lot more, while some were able to buckle down and get it done,” said Schweigert.
But unfortunately, no student is completely immune to the pressures, fatigue, and stress college can cause, especially during a pandemic. As San Juan points out, burnout is largely a cognitive struggle, one which we don’t always have complete control over.
“We know that a lot of those higher order cognitive functions really are directly impacted by stress and fatigue, so the more tired we are essentially the harder it is for us to engage in … effective planning, effective self-regulation,” San Juan says.
And the burnout doesn’t just affect students. Faculty are feeling the heat too.
“Well, we do contribute to the burnout. But we also experience it. Students are not the only ones that are really at the end of their rope right now feeling a little frazzled,” said Schweigert.
Once a certain point of stress and fatigue is reached, it becomes much harder to maintain focus when studying for an exam, grading papers, or writing an essay. Then, once all the added stressors that come with attending university during a pandemic are mixed in, the mind can become completely overwhelmed.
“For students, for example, they went very rapidly from in person teaching, to online teaching, to hybrid teaching, and then back again. The impact of that is when we have a routine that's structured and we can anticipate it, it doesn’t require a lot of cognitive thought to sort of think about how to plan for the day, but if it's constantly changing, suddenly you have to divert attention and resources to that … to constantly be dealing with that change is just a whole other stressor,” explains San Juan.
As the burnout continues to impact more and more students, the role professors have in student wellness has become critical, as well as the role students have in taking care of themselves, and each other.
“I think many faculty after this past year have become a lot more compassionate…they might be a little more understanding if there is a problem with meeting a deadline. There’s a greater acknowledgement that students do have stressors and lives outside of classes,” said Schweigert.
In addition to more compassion, many teachers have implemented self-care routines directly in their classrooms, like taking time to do Yoga as a class. Whatever it may be, San Juan says actions like this help model self-care to students and demonstrate how important it is to take time for yourself.
“It’s OK to take time for yourself. You don’t need to be studying 12 hours, 14 hours a day to feel like you’re doing well … if you make sure that you leave some time for yourself and have it planned out, then when you go to have that you don’t feel guilty and it's actually going to be really good for your mind,” said San Juan.
She also encourages everyone not to forget how important it is to socialize, especially after being isolated for so long during the pandemic.
“To spend time with people that make us feel good, that help us relieve stress, that is probably one of the best ways to recuperate. I think it’s really valuable.”