Students, psychologists no strangers to burnout

Tiffany Rodriguez | Daily Trojan

As a constant fixture in the top ranks of the nation’s universities, USC — along with many other elite schools — has long been a prime setting for academic burnout among students competing for grades and opportunities. 

Burnout, generally defined as “a physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress,” has many identifiable symptoms, including but not limited to a lack of motivation, frustration, decreased productivity, low morale and difficulty concentrating. 

Certain characteristics of one’s work environment — including a lack of autonomy, an overwhelming workload or a destructive level of competitiveness among co-workers and students — play a large role in breeding burnout, according to Dr. Summer Zapata, a clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Keck School of Medicine.     

“When you’re in an environment where you’re being either micromanaged or there’s limited flexibility, whether it’s in your time or deadlines or things like that, that can also lead to burnout,” Zapata said.

Another cause of burnout extends past being overloaded, restricted or limited — burnout can also arise when an individual loses a sense of agency in the work they do, Zapata said. 

“When you feel like you’re not making meaningful change or when you’ve lost your sense of meaning or purpose, that can also lead to burnout,” Zapata said. 

Aileen Cha, a rising sophomore majoring in biochemistry, said she has dealt with many symptoms of burnout since high school and found it difficult to remember her purpose during the spring 2022 semester. 

“There are definitely moments during the long periods of lacking motivation [where] I do question myself like, ‘What is the point of all this?’” Cha said.

Burnout has also affected some students with a non-traditional USC experience, including Audrey Irvine, a spring admit and rising sophomore majoring in health and human sciences. Irvine said her burnout symptoms included losing motivation to get ahead of homework and long readings.

“The transition to USC was a lot harder than I thought, especially with the giant feeder classes,” Irvine said. “Getting used to a harder workload hit me harder than I thought it would, so I got burnt out a lot easier than I thought I would.”

Students preparing to enter the workforce can overcome symptoms of burnout and academic exhaustion by being thoughtful about the work environments they choose, engaging in self-care and spending active time focusing on positive, energizing personal relationships, Zapata said.

“It’s very important to really focus on what’s your purpose and move toward things that you really value,” Zapata said.

Cha said that reaching out to not only friends but other people in her classes helped relieve some of her burnout as well.

“I definitely lean on my friends for support just because I know we’re all on the same journey,” Cha said.                              

Alongside focusing on these relationships, Zapata recommended strategies to help combat burnout through a better work-life balance.

“It’s really important to have healthy boundaries with work,” said Zapata, citing habits that can create a more distinct line between free time and work, including not checking your email after a certain time of the day and taking sporadic breaks with rejuvenating activities that increase your energy and attention span, rather than zoning out while using social media.

Equally as important as self-led changes in a student’s working lifestyle is reaching out to a mental healthcare provider whenever necessary, Zapata said; USC’s Student Health Fee provides counseling services through Keck, and Keck’s mental health response network is available to those in-state throughout the summer and academic year both in-person and through Telehealth. If a student is out-of-state but wishes to take advantage of mental health resources over the summer, USC will provide referrals to connect students to providers in their area. 

According to Dr. Suh Chen Hsiao, a clinical associate professor of field education in social work who focuses on healthy aging and mental wellness, the key to managing burnout and maintaining mental health as students prepare to enter the workforce is dealing with their programs’ expectations in their own time and pacing themselves rather than treating academia as a race against others. 

“Stress can be good, but on the other hand, if you take on too much for your situation right now, you’re not 100% to the level where you can address it or tackle it,” Hsiao said.

Additionally, knowing how to recognize limitations and being unafraid to reach out to mental health resources is important for a student’s success, she said. 

“You want a wonderful learning opportunity. You want to be successful. You want to be able to get ready to go into workforce development,” Hsiao said. “The crucial point is knowing when to ask for help.”