Burnt Out

Burnt Out

It’s everywhere, it’s worse than it was in the 80s, and it’s not just you.

“Work hard, play hard” works, until it doesn’t. Most of us drink anywhere between 1-4 nights a week, work one or two jobs, and belong to one or two clubs or volunteer groups - all on top of uni. It’s a lifestyle, and we make it work. But students are burning the candle at both ends and burning out en masse. What’s changed since the ‘80s? Why do we all feel like we’re about to lose it?

Burnout has risen alongside “hustle culture”, a phenomenon that “is kind of glamorised on social media,”' said Niamh, a student we spoke to while she took her fourth mental health walk of the day. For example: the TikTok trend of “that girl” getting up at 5am and doing a million-and-one things before going to school or work. “Social media plays a huge role in setting up some of these behaviours that people are trying to follow, and maintains it by the popularity that these kinds of videos and content creators are making… [The trend] is insane and unattainable for a lot of uni students. It’s so tied up in privilege.”

Another student said that they “feel like it’s so easy to feel burnt out because there’s so much pressure in productivity culture, like to get up at 4am and do a million things.” These trends really picked up post-pandemic. Perhaps people felt like they had been on pause for two years and needed to catch up. It’s also a phenomenon unique to our generation. When asked whether burnout was a thing in the “old days”, one student from the ‘80s said they “wouldn’t have known what burnout even meant.” The rise of social media, along with the cost of living and competitive nature of university, seems to have birthed a new concept of burnout just for us, telling us this is what our lives “should” look like. According to Niamh, social media provides an “aesthetic mask for unhealthy behaviours.”

Sometimes burnout is hard to recognise until you’re out of it, because burnout comes before you realise you’re burnt out. It can result in a loss of motivation or passion for what you’re studying and, once you’ve experienced burnout, it can be hard to find that passion again. One student felt that it's really a pressure we put on ourselves: “People have high expectations.” This can be a good thing, but too much pressure can be detrimental to our mental health. And while burnout is not a medical diagnosis, Student Health said that the phenomenon can have a “significant impact on people’s quality of life and functioning.” Student Health’s Clinical Group Leader Richard Mooney said that “often when students present to us they will describe anxiety, worry, stress, and feeling overwhelmed.” This is burnout to a T.

Students suggested that as more and more people are getting burnt out, it diminishes our ability to sympathise with one another, as we are all struggling. “Burnout means we have less time for each other” said Niamh. Students felt that burnout has negatively affected their personal relationships. “It shortens your fuse”, said Amber*, who we found under a desk in the library. “Internal stress can manifest in outbursts toward others or just generally forgetting how to act like a normal human being”.

When the term “burnout” is mentioned, most students know exactly what that means. It comes in many different forms: mental, physical, or emotional, appearing in both the academic and social spheres of our lives. “It can be really subtle and quiet,” said Niamh. “It can present itself in physical forms, but is also a huge mental load.” It tends to manifest itself in “anxiety, lack of sleep, and decreased productivity, said Neve, another burnt-out student we found on the side of the road. “It’s like feeling you’re in a constant state of stress and high pressure. It’s an unattainable and unmanageable state to be in. It’s a perpetual cycle.” In her first year, Neve experienced burnout from “trying to juggle a social life with studying 24/7. It involved not much sleep, a lot of tears, and a lot of caffeine.” Another student described it as a form of “self-sabotaging” and a result of “not knowing my parameters of how much I could do.”

It also makes students prone to comparing themselves to one another. “You might be happy with how you are tracking in your own life, but then you look at someone else’s Instagram and see their achievements and think, ‘Oh, I could be doing more,’” said Neve. “It’s easy to burn out just by watching others who are doing more than you, but aren’t burning out themselves.” Comparison is especially prominent in Dunedin, as we all live, study, sleep and party together. “This is the only campus in NZ where 90% of the people are away from home and all live together. It’s so insular,” said Amber.

Of course, there’s also the academic pressures and the looming inevitability of future employment for those coming to the end of their degrees. “The pressure of the future is a huge contributor to anxiety. I feel like if I don’t grind now, it’s gonna lead to doom later. It feels like you’re securing your future and happiness for later on, but sacrificing your current happiness and health in the process,” said Niamh. This is especially true for competitive courses such as Medicine where the points system causes students to try and cram in as many papers as possible.

“Postgraduate entry for professional medical pathways use a point-based system where the more papers you take, the better your GPA. It ends up forcing you to take summer school papers and cram up to five papers a semester [which] triggers burnout so easily,” said Finn, as he watched his fifth “satisfying animation compilation” video of the day. Students who overdo it in summer school are also more prone to experiencing burnout. “People do a bunch of summer school papers then get burnt out one week in,” said Joel, as he huddled under his duvet. Despite its reputation for being a party uni, Otago tends to demand a level of academic rigour which, when coupled with pressures of the future and the insular nature of the student community, can amount to students facing high levels of stress and burnout.

However, no matter the intensity of their workload or internal stress levels, Dunedin students never sacrifice their fun. In Dunedin, we are lucky to have such a tight-knit student community. In our little city run by students, we can essentially play by our own rules and live in a bubble somewhat removed from the real world. For most students, it’s also their first time moving out of home and navigating this new way of living. “It’s pretty intense. Like a whole new lifestyle to get used to,” said Jordan. It’s certainly a unique uni experience.

While it’s attractive to a lot of students, this “work hard, play hard” mantra can also lead to students burning the candle at both ends. There’s a universal agreement among Dunedin students that, generally, “Sunday is a write off. So Monday to Friday needs to be completely grinding,” said Niamh. “The social pressure of always being busy, always having something on the go, making sure you're doing social events at the same time as your academics - it can be exhausting,” Neve agreed. “People live for the drinking, so they burn the candle at both ends, grinding throughout the day,” said another student. “There’s not as much balance down here in terms of taking life slow.”

Dunedin students will always seize any opportunity to celebrate their successes, whether it be handing in an assignment, or making it to the library for more than two hours, or going three days sober. As soon as you get a win, “you wanna go straight out,” said Neve. “There’s no downtime. It keeps us in a continuing state of stress and high pressure.” Sleep, however, is a huge part of preserving mental health, and drinking can detrimentally affect the quality of our sleep. “If you’re drinking 2-3 times a week, you’re missing out on that good sleep. It puts your body in a state of stress, alongside the energy expenditure of partying,” she said. Otago graduates aren’t just coming away with a highly rated degree from a prestigious institution. They also get to take home “three years of liver damage and exhaustion” in a doggy bag.

Despite its pervasive nature, burnout is not inescapable and can be pretty easily fixed. “The key is knowing yourself, and knowing your limits,” said Amber. She said that she thought it’s important to listen to our bodies when they tell us we need a break, regardless of what everyone else around us is doing. In other words, it’s “learning when to pick your battles,” said Charlotte*. Students also found that removing themselves from stressful situations – whether it be taking opportunities to go home during breaks – or even just getting out of North Dunedin, could help.

Amber said that it’s good to remember that “there’s life outside of uni.” Niamh added that doing little things like going out to the beach or getting a coffee with friends helped, “or trying to focus on stuff that’s still productive, but in a restful way, like sleep, catching up with friends, or going to the gym… We have such a narrow perception of productivity”. The consensus seemed to be that expanding the idea of the “best” way to spend our time is important since there’s so much more to life than just studying and partying. Taking a break from social media is also a good way to limit the effects of burnout, according to Niamh. “I religiously delete social media,” she said. “I’m amazed at how much that helps.” Alternatively, there’s also the option of altering one’s physical appearance in order to relieve one’s inner turmoil. “I had a mental breakdown from uni and got my nipple pierced to make me happy,” said Sacha. Equally as effective, and a great short-term solution.

Most importantly, rely on the close social networks that we are so blessed to have here in Dunedin. We are constantly surrounded by our friends, and it’s important to reach out if you’re struggling. Burnout is something so many of us experience, and it’s not talked about enough. Keeping the conversation open can go a long way in countering the effects of stress, anxiety, and burnout. So remember to lean on each other, support each other, and check on your mates. 

*names changed

This article first appeared in Issue 8, 2023.
Posted 2:38pm Sunday 23rd April 2023 by Anna Robertshawe.