How to Survive Academic Burnout

How to Survive Academic Burnout

“…it is crucial for healthcare students and practitioners to take care of themselves and manage the impacts of burnout.”

 

 

Wow. I can’t believe that I am only a couple of months away from completing my master’s coursework. Once I finish my second Level II fieldwork and take my national board exam, I will officially be a licensed occupational therapist (OT). It almost feels surreal to think about how fast this journey has flown by. As I reflect on my time in OT school, I am overcome with a plethora of emotions. I feel immense gratitude for all the wonderful people I’ve met and for the opportunity to learn and grow on a professional, academic, and personal level.

Yet, at the same time, I am downright exhausted and drained, trying my hardest to make it through this home stretch of my master’s program. 

I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the academically rigorous, challenging, and competitive nature of OT school. The intense schedules, time-consuming coursework, lack of sleep, fieldwork expectations, and hours of studying…are tough. On top of the academic demands, you must manage your finances, relationships, and personal life. Needless to say, it has not been easy, and the academic burnout is real. 

academic burnout, meme, therapy, occupational

Academic burnout can be understood as “a negative emotional, physical and mental reaction to a prolonged study that results in exhaustion, frustration, lack of motivation and reduced ability in school” (University of the People, 2021, para. 3). OT students often experience this due to the overwhelm and exhaustion associated with the never-ending deadlines, long papers, group projects, assignments due the day of, numerous exams, and more (Haughey et al., 2017). This is not uncommon for healthcare students, especially during their final year of studies. Research suggests that burnout is more pronounced during students’ last year, and 52% of health profession students experience extreme exhaustion by this point in their academic career (Lewis-Kipkulei et al., 2021). 

academic burnout, meme, therapy, occupational, school

Dealing with academic burnout is challenging and, honestly, not sustainable. Not only is it detrimental to my own health and wellbeing, but it negatively impacts my performance as well. While I have learned a lot in graduate school, one of the biggest takeaways from my experience is the importance of working in a profession that allows for a work-life balance to avoid burnout. When I enter the working world, one of my biggest priorities is to mitigate the likelihood of experiencing burnout. However, I often question, will this even be possible in a healthcare setting? 

Before starting graduate school, I was never fearful of experiencing burnout as an OT. I was so excited to become an OT – I couldn’t wait to develop creative treatment plans, connect with patients, and help patients engage in activities that are meaningful to them. I was confident that it wouldn’t be difficult to be the best possible OT I could be. Later on, I came to the harsh realization that life as a healthcare provider is not simply about enhancing the health and wellbeing of patients, but you are also bombarded with tasks such as documentation, paperwork, staying up to date with evidence-based practice, dealing with insurance/reimbursement, and more. OTs are expected to manage several facets of patient care. These professional expectations, along with the emotional obligations of caring for patients, increase the chance of burnout and “an imbalanced professional quality of life” (Zeman & Harvison, 2017, para. 1). 

Avoiding burnout and going through each workday with ease is essential to providing quality care to patients. However, similar to how academic burnout has affected my performance in school, I often worry that professional burnout in the future will inhibit me from being the best possible OT I can be. 

It is my hope that one day our healthcare system will figure out a way to reduce these burdens on healthcare professionals, alleviate instances of burnout, and allow healthcare professionals to truly focus on providing quality care to their patients. However, in the meantime, it is crucial for healthcare students and practitioners to take care of themselves and manage the impacts of burnout. 

While I have yet to master overcoming and avoiding burnout, I have figured out a few ways to cope with my stress. I will end this blog post with three tips for anyone attempting to manage the overwhelming demands of their professional or academic life. 

Find a Meaningful Occupation

When hearing the word “occupation,” most people think of a job or profession. Yet, for OTs, occupations are “the activities people engage in throughout their daily lives to fulfill their time and give life meaning” (Journal of Occupational Science, 2001, p. 40). Occupations are essentially any activity that brings value to your life. That being said, my first piece of advice would be to identify an occupation that is meaningful to you and integrate it into your daily life. 

For me, my chosen occupation is piano playing. I played when I was younger and decided to get back into it during my first year of OT school. I’ve set a personal goal for myself to play piano at least three times a week, even if that means just playing 15 minutes before leaving for class or before bed. Doing this has made a notable difference in my overall emotional wellbeing and has been an excellent way for me to decompress during stressful times of the semester. 

Prioritize your Social Relationships

Last semester was a particularly tough one for me, and due to the academic demands, I really struggled to balance my school life and personal life. I took challenging classes and wanted to get perfect grades, which led me to have zero availability to spend time with the people I care about. I saw my friends probably three times throughout the entire semester and only saw my family once during Thanksgiving break. This had a significant impact on my overall well-being, and I told myself never to let this happen again. 

This semester, I made a promise to myself to spend time with friends or family at least once a week. So, at the beginning of each week, I reach out to a friend or family member to coordinate a hangout. This gives me enough time to plan ahead and forces me not to procrastinate and complete all my school work ahead of time. Ever since I started prioritizing my relationships, I have noticed a positive difference in my mood, motivation levels, and ability to manage stress. 

Limit the School/Work Talk

When school or work dominates your life, it becomes difficult to talk about anything else. Even outside of my school environment, I catch myself only conversing about topics related to school or OT.  This made me realize that my mind 24/7 is thinking about school or assignments deadlines, and subconsciously this only makes me more stressed and burnt out. 

Lately, my classmates and I have been working on limiting our school-related conversations. When we hang out, we have a deal that we will not discuss anything related to coursework, fieldwork, exams, assignments, etc. This is a lot easier said than done. The last time we went out to eat, it took us 30 minutes to realize that we spent the first half of our dinner discussing our upcoming midterm. Once we realized this, my friend immediately googled “table topic conversation starters” and steered our conversations towards our personal lives and interests. 

It felt so nice to take our minds off school for just an hour and learn more about one another. It is not only refreshing to think about something else, but it is also a reminder of the many aspects of life that we forget about when we are burnt out. Although it may take a conscious effort to avoid school or work-related conversations, it is worth it and will provide you with a sense of relief, at least temporarily. 


References:

Haughey, K., Zimmerman, S., & Sanders, M. (2017). Perceived stressors and coping in junior, senior, and Graduate Occupational Therapy Students: A qualitative analysis. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 71(4_Supplement_1). https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2017.71s1-po7035 

Journal of Occupational Science. (2001). Occupational terminology interactive dialogue: Occupation. Journal of Occupational Science, 8(2), 38-41. https://doi.org/10.1080/14427591.2001.10597264

Lewis-Kipkulei, P., Dunn, L. S., & Carpenter, A. M. (2021). Implications for Occupational Therapy Student Stress, Well-Being, and Coping: A Scoping Review. Journal of Occupational Therapy Education, 5 (1). https://doi.org/10.26681/jote.2021.050102

University of the People. (2021, December 13). Academic burnout: How to prevent it and what to do: Uopeople. University of the People. Retrieved March 14, 2022, from https://www.uopeople.edu/blog/what-is-academic-burnout/ 

Zeman, E., & Harvison, N. (2017). Burnout, stress, and Compassion Fatigue in occupational therapy practice and education: A call for mindful, self-care protocols. NAM Perspectives, 7(3). https://doi.org/10.31478/201703g

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