‘I felt like I live to work’: students talk burnout
Rice students are busy. Rice students are tired. Some Rice students are facing the mounting threat of burnout. Amid academic, extracurricular and social expectations, four students described their struggles with burnout at Rice. Agnes Ho, Director of the Student Wellbeing Office, defined burnout as “what happens when you are physically and emotionally stressed and exhausted to the point that your body and mind signal you to do something to either respond to it or to shut you down.”
“[Burnout] is a physiological response to save us from potential threats and help us to survive,” Ho wrote in an email. “If you are feeling burnout, it’s a warning sign for you to know it’s time to stop and step away from a stressful situation. In [other] words, it’s an opportunity to regroup yourself by focusing on your body, mind and emotions.”
Bria Weisz, a Brown College junior, said that while Rice may not be a competitive space she still finds herself comparing herself to her peers and their paths to success. With the unique challenges of the major which she created herself – computer science in the arts – and uncertainty about her future career, the pressure can often lead her to try to prepare for multiple career paths, to her own detriment.
“Rice perpetuates a culture of busyness in which people are expected to be doing a lot of outstanding things all the time,” Weisz said. “Any normal person doing a single major might be doing like a third of what I’m doing. As a result [of my interdisciplinary major], I have taken on too much in terms of classes and classes, work in extracurriculars to the point that I’ve lost a lot of motivation. A lot of the things that I used to enjoy doing, I don’t really enjoy doing anymore.”
Ho wrote that Rice students typically report moderate to high stress. Stressors can range from external factors, like academic and career concerns, relationship issues and concerns about public safety and health, to internal factors, such as issues with self-criticism or self-image and imposter syndrome.
“Sometimes, I notice our students can easily put stress aside and ignore stress symptoms while continuing to deal with stressors on a daily basis,” Ho wrote. “It’s not uncommon to hear students say, ‘I don’t have time to deal with it.’ However, the more we ignore our stress, the more it can build up and lead to burnout.”
For Ulises Moreno, a Baker College freshman, the difficulty of classes at Rice was greater than he anticipated. He said that in this past semester, he found himself facing feelings of burnout largely due to an overloaded course schedule.
“I’m an electrical engineering major [and] basically tried to do too much at the same time,” Moreno said. “I overloaded myself, since it was my first time seeing a lot of the topics that were being covered in these classes. We were approaching the add-drop deadline, and I was working on a homework with some friends and had just reached the point where I was like, ‘I can’t do this,’ and I had to drop a class. If I hadn’t done that, I would have had some sort of breakdown.”
The pandemic has presented an additional challenge for students, alongside pre-existing stressors. Nida Fatima, a Lovett College junior, said that she started to feel the effects of burnout during her sophomore year, when campus was shut down due to COVID-19.
“After you were done with work, you didn’t really have anything else to do,” Fatima said. “The way Rice works is you’re never done with work, really. When you feel like [you] need to catch a break, there’s some kind of work [or responsibility] looming over you.”
Fatima said that, upon returning to campus, she enjoyed the return of opportunities to socialize but that it, at times, contributed to her stress.
“As COVID restrictions started going down and campus started coming back to normal, even though I genuinely like [the social aspects of campus,] it becomes kind of like work,” Fatima said. “It becomes like, ‘Oh, if I'm not social and if I work, people are just not going to be my friends anymore. But if I don't work, I'm just gonna fail. It’s like [I] divided up the work in different segments. It's different work, but it still seems like work to me.”
Eli Mendoza, a Duncan College junior, said that national and campus conversations about anti-transgender bigotry was an additional burden that contributed to feelings of burnout.
“Having to advocate for myself and things like that – it all adds up. It’s just [I] hit a point where it takes too much energy, and [I’m] just emotionally exhausted. A lot of times it's on the students to be their own advocates,” Mendoza said. “That is all on the backs of the students who are the ones being targeted.”
Students have employed a variety of strategies to manage and mitigate the impact of burnout. According to Weisz, she reframes procrastination as something that can have negative consequences but can also provide the benefit of a break. Mendoza said that support from friends and a shift in campus conversation toward greater understanding of mental health struggles have been helpful.
Fatima said that, although she does not have an exact plan to deal with burnout, accepting burnout when it comes has been important to her.
“I have to accept that, yes, I am tired, and it’s okay to be tired,” Fatima said. “It’s okay to take a break, and, if things are not working out, let them not work out. It’s alright. These little things that I’m so worried about are not going to amount to that much.”
Ho wrote that taking a break is not only beneficial but necessary for students facing burnout. She advised students to take the time to acknowledge their feelings and connect their emotions and thoughts.
“The thing that we want to avoid is ignoring all these warning signs and ending up feeling so exhausted we lose the meaning and purpose of what we want to accomplish,” Ho said.
For students facing emotional distress or having issues functioning, Ho recommends resources such as the Counseling and Wellbeing Center and Dr. Kristen Neff’s free, guided self-compassion exercises as well as peer support.
“Don’t forget the Culture of Care on our campus,” Ho wrote. “I’m very proud of our students and the fact that we look out for each other. We encourage students to start talking with someone they trust and feel comfortable with when they feel stressed. Reach out to your friends or peer resources like Rice Health Advisors. Go to study breaks, grab a coffee at CHAUS or go for a walk in the beautiful campus. You deserve to take a break.”
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