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EDITORIAL: What Rutgers can do to address student burnout

Updated administration and classroom policies needed to prevent student burnout, not just awareness

Dangerous burnout levels among U.S. students and workers act as a wake-up call for Rutgers to take action. – Photo by Siora Photography / Unsplash

Ever since the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, burnout levels among U.S. workers and college students seem to be on the rise.

But what is burnout? Job burnout is defined by Mayo Clinic as "a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity."

Burnout symptoms include but are not limited to irritability, fatigue, altered sleep habits, loss of willpower or concentration, headaches and stomach problems. And these symptoms can later manifest into serious health issues such as high blood pressure, heart disease and substance misuse.

In 2022, burnout levels were worse than those reported during the pandemic among U.S. workers, and a higher proportion of people younger than 30 reported feeling burnout at work than those over 30.

This is not surprising in a culture that demands so much from young people. Selective colleges are becoming even more competitive, and ever since COVID-19 rocked the job market, people lack the confidence that one day they will be hired.

While students worry about the prospects of a future job, they are expected to balance classes, part-time jobs, internship applications and extracurriculars. This desire for overachievement, combined with the weight of expectations and responsibilities, creates unsustainable stress levels that seem to inevitably turn into a state of burnout.

Clearly, burnout is affecting college students on a widespread scale, and it is important that Rutgers does something to support students in an understanding and productive way.

For one, burnout needs to be de-stigmatized, and that starts with addressing our societal attitude towards burnout and how we talk about it.

It is a common experience for students to express to their professors that they are stressed because of how much they have to balance and for professors to respond with a sentiment along the lines of: "Well, I have other classes and papers to grade, and I manage it all."

This kind of response trivializes the burnout experienced by students and does not consider how demanding it can be to a student, especially when one is transitioning from the expectations of high school to those in college.

These kinds of comments also make it difficult for students to approach professors about taking breaks for their mental health. It is important for society to understand that if a student was physically sick, they would be able to take a day off from class, and this same courtesy should be extended to students struggling with their mental health.

While some professors make it known to their classes that they are open to discussing accommodations for students struggling with mental health, there should be a more clear standard across the board that Rutgers upholds.

There should be an expectation outlined for professors about how to support a student in need of a break from class or an extension for an assignment for their mental health.

Students knowing that they can approach all professors at Rutgers, instead of a select few, about their mental health and burnout would ease widespread anxiety and encourage communication between professors and students.

This kind of continuous communication also feels more personalized than professors just listing the mental health resources offered at Rutgers on their syllabus at the beginning of the year, which comes off as if they want to hand off the problem to someone else instead of working with students.

Additionally, Rutgers as a university can take action.

Rutgers could implement university-wide mental health days each semester in order to give students a break from classes and an opportunity to recharge. This would also signify that the University acknowledges that burnout is a prominent issue worth addressing.

As covered in previous editorials, Rutgers should consider adopting fall break as many other universities do and making sure that assignments do not spoil its existing break periods. This is especially important as spring break is around the corner, and professors should be cognizant of lessening academic workloads.

Breaks should be breaks. They should serve as much-needed stress relievers for students and should be thoughtfully spread out throughout the year to proactively prevent student burnout.

Additionally, small gestures like hanging posters or graphics in the bathrooms around campus that explain the symptoms of burnout and what students can do to take care of themselves and communicate with professors could be beneficial.

Efforts like these to spread awareness do matter because they make students feel seen, but they are ultimately not enough.

Burnout is clearly not going anywhere, and experiencing it is a perfectly normal reaction to such a demanding environment. But we need to do more than just spread awareness.

We need to restructure things to address the root of the problem, and that starts with university policies around academic breaks and universal policies in the classroom.

If substantial change is not seen, we will continue to perpetuate an endless and unsustainable cycle of motivation and burnout.

The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 155th editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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