At university, it can sometimes feel like you have so much going on and so much to do that you can’t even wrap your head around where to start. And when these responsibilities and obligations pile up and become too much, they can begin to have a huge impact on your mental health. The term ‘burnout’ was first coined as a psychological condition in 1974, but has become more prevalent in recent years. It is now widely considered to be a “millenial” condition. Whilst many of the undergrads currently in university are not technically in this arbitrary bracket, burnout is a growing epidemic among students and is often the result of the societal and cultural conditions in which we have been raised.
A common misunderstanding of burnout is that it is a complete breakdown, a collapse under the weight of all the stuff you need to do. Although having a nervous breakdown can be one extreme result of burnout, the most common symptoms aren’t as dramatic. One way of experiencing burnout is what is known as errand paralysis, where in an attempt to make room for deadlines, applications - whatever - smaller and more menial tasks fall to the bottom of your seemingly never-ending to-do list. I’m talking laundry, doing the dishes, answering emails, tidying your room, returning that Asos package, replying to your mum. These tasks roll over, day after day, and you’re so stressed about bigger things that you just can’t bring yourself to do the smaller stuff. While forgetting to tidy your room for a week or so hardly constitutes a breakdown, the background noise of these mundane things you need to do builds up and pushes you closer to the point of extreme burnout. So many people experience errand paralysis but attribute it to their own laziness and not to a deeper rooted issue. It’s important to remember that just because you are successfully managing some areas of your life, this does not mean that may also be experiencing burnout.
But why is burnout so prevalent in young people? It stems from a variety of social, economic, and cultural factors that have combined to instill in our generation an aversion to doing nothing and a need to be constantly productive. The financial crisis of the late 2000s created this looming threat of economic instability that continues to hang over the heads of younger generations. Millennials and Generation Z-ers are placed at the precipice of the buck in the trend of increasing wealth and security in housing and jobs: the first generation to be less well off than our parents. Our future promises the constant threat of debt and unemployment, which is a huge pressure, even on those with parents who could support them financially, and is absolutely crippling for those without.
As a result of this, excelling at a young age and setting yourself up for a successful future has gone beyond aspiration and has become ingrained in our very psyche. School and university are no longer just about learning, but are essential rungs in the ladder towards career. And it isn’t just to do with career trajectories and financial security. Productivity must also pervade into every aspect of your life until it defines its intrinsic value. It is not enough to just be successful and high achieving, but you also need to be well-liked, attractive, have hobbies and interests, and you need to fit these ‘extracurriculars’ around your work or study in the most efficient way possible. Everything becomes about productivity, about adding things to your CV and being the best you that you can be. All this in the hope that the (distant) future will be one in which you are comfortable and accomplished enough to stop working so damn hard.
Modernity and *ahem* capitalism have created a world in which doing nothing is no longer an option. Not only do we have pressure from our parents or teachers to succeed, but the internet means that we never get a chance to switch off. Social media allows us to present the best, most productive, and most accomplished parts of our lives (whether it’s socialising, studying or exercising) and above all, to make it look completely effortless. Even looking at someone’s holiday photos online can make you feel guilty, envious of the fact that they can take a break from working whilst you just have so much to do. Social media has branded human beings as products to be aspired to. Smartphones and readily available internet access have blended the boundary between the public and the private. Therefore, the division between work and rest is practically nonexistent. We are constantly switched on to all of the things that need to be done: the emails to answer, the essays to write, the facebook notifications about events you should be attending. You are never allowed to truly clock out.
We have internalised the idea that we should be working, or at least doing something, constantly. In university, this becomes all-consuming. Work comes in many different forms. On one hand you have to maintain your good grades, on the other hand you want to maintain an active social life to have the ‘full university experience.’ And then you have to grow a few more hands to account for all the societies you need to be able to write about in your internship applications. You must also remember to eat healthily and exercise regularly, work a part time job, dress well, keep up with the news, sleep enough. Is it any wonder that laundry sometimes takes a back seat?
In what is supposed to be our formative years, the years in which you mold and shape the person you’re going to become, the pressure to be doing as much as possible is exhausting. Even the things you do for fun become a form of labour, another mark in your overfilled schedule. The marketisation of education means that we are paying extortionate amounts for these four years, and so you take on as much as you can, in order to make the most out of the product which simultaneously gives us this crippling debt but also a means to potentially escape from it. I can’t count the amount of times me and my friends have complained about how stressed or tired or overworked we are, but the reality is that there is so much riding on our time here that we are too anxious to stop working.
I considered finishing this article with some practical tips on how to protect yourself from burnout. But I think that self care and wellness culture can be just as damaging. I have been told time and time again to take more time for myself, to the extent that I feel guilty when I don’t. Of course, you should take measures to take care of yourself, but this doesn't have to be a forty minute morning routine that incorporates affirmations, meditation, and journaling. The idea that you can fix stress with a face mask was invented by beauty corporations, and when you find yourself writing DO YOGA in huge red letters on your calendar it’s perhaps time to consider whether you are actually lightening your mental load.
I can’t hope to give any sort of solution to burnout, and if I were to, it would be hypocritical to the point of deception. I find that recognising the signs of burnout in yourself and others can be helpful, such as an exponentially expanding to-do list and that constant nagging feeling that you ought to be doing something, even when you’re trying to relax. Trying to make time to sleep enough, drink enough water, and eat regular meals can help, as well as spending time with your friends, even if you are all just moaning about how much you all have going on. But, above all, try to remember that this intense pressure to be productive does not come from inside of us. It comes from the way in which society has been constructed. It is so easy to be intensely self-critical when holding yourself up to standards which you didn’t even set, and sometimes perspective is the only thing that can help a bit.
Being at university is a huge privilege, and the opportunities and freedom afforded to us during our time here are incomparable. Whilst burnout can be debilitating, it is very much a first world problem (as much as it pains me to use that phrase) that has been manufactured by late capitalism, and when you take a step back and assess why you feel this compulsion to not stop working, it all seems a bit absurd.
*Illustration by Emily Donnelly*