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23 October 2020

6 Ways to Beat a Burnout

Last November, when I was working on my final year project (FYP), I received a text from my friend. It read:

How’s your internship hunt going?

I sighed. I hadn't even started working on my resume! “When did things get so hectic?” I thought to myself. There was so much work to be done! Being overworked just zapped away my motivation and energy to do anything. It started to feel a little overbearing. I stared at my laptop with the look of apathy. Somedays, I feel extremely grateful for this well-functioning device. On other days (especially days like this), I wanted to smash it to the ground, hoping that it would serve as a valid reason to take a break from all the assignments, quizzes, and tests. I was mentally exhausted, unmotivated, and helpless. 

This was when I realised that I was having my first burnout.

Burnout… or Stressed?

The World Health Organization (WHO) classified a ‘burnout’ as an occupational phenomenon that stemmed from long-term workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It can be described as the loss of meaning in one’s work, coupled with mental, emotional, or physical exhaustion as a result of long-term, unresolved stress. 

There are three main symptoms of burnout:

  • Depletion or exhaustion

  • Increased mental distance or having negative feelings towards one’s job 

  • Reduction in professional efficacy

WHO categorised burnout strictly as a work-related phenomenon and shouldn’t be described in other areas of life. However, I beg to differ. At the time I was doing my FYP, it pretty much felt like work and I had experienced all three symptoms. 

First, let’s differentiate being burned out and feeling stressed. 

Experiencing a burnout means feeling unmotivated, devoid, and mentally exhausted. You could feel like you’re not having or doing enough. On the other hand, being stressed is a sense of feeling overwhelmed and pressured by drowning responsibilities. Unlike a burnout, you’d feel like you’re having too much on your plate and, sometimes, stress in small doses can work well in our favour. However, burnouts will never result in a positive outcome. So, what goes behind this energy-sapping phenomenon?

Causes of Burnout

We often hear how the working society falls into a trap of being overworked and exhausted due to long working hours. The same goes for academic life! Some burnout-inducing factors common among students are overtaxing workload, family issues, financial problems, and difficulty in time management. Besides, many may not consider this but being a student is a full-time job with minimal opportunities to take breaks during the semester, making it more likely for us to reach the burnout stage faster!

Did You Know? 

The term karoshi (death due to being overworked) was popularised in Japan in the 70s and is still prevalent to this day!

Symptoms of Burnout

We usually realise when we feel pressured or stressed. However, this isn’t the case with burnouts. Hence, it’s vital to look out for these warning signs before it gets any worse:

Physical

  1. Constantly feeling fatigued. 

  2. Drastic changes in appetite or sleeping habits.

  3. Frequently falling sick (eg. headaches, muscle pain). 

Emotional

  1. Loss of motivation.

  2. Feeling helpless, trapped, and alone in the world. 

  3. Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment.

Behavioural 

  1. Skipping, coming in late, or leaving classes early.

  2. Using external elements to cope (eg. food, alcohol).

  3. Procrastinating or taking an unusually longer time to get things done.

Ways to Beat a Burnout

I’m Asian and I love rice. However, unlike fluffy white rice, I do not do well under extreme pressure (and heat!). As I was chatting with friends, who were in the same (sinking) boat, I realised that I wasn’t the only one feeling burned out. My friends and I discussed (honestly rant) on how monotonous and overwhelming it was to meet the university’s demands. 

In the end, we came up with some practices to prevent burnouts:

1. Schedule your break time

One of my favourite fool-proof ways of dealing with burnouts is to disconnect from my devices. Thanks to technological advancement, it’s easy to be constantly working instead of resting. However, just like our devices, we need to recharge — you need your ‘me time’! 

Find it hard to take a break from gadgets? Here’s a list of apps to help you kickstart your digital detox:

  1. Offtime (Free for iOS and Android users)

  2. Forest Stay Focused (RM7.90 for iOS and free for Android)

  3. Flipd (Free for iOS and free for Android)

  4. Freedom (Free for iOS and free for Android)

Try to get into a relaxed environment and slow down the gears in your head. Practice yoga, meditate, or anything you define as therapeutic! I tried getting into some new hobbies that didn’t involve staring at the screen. Now, I’m practicing journaling and reading every day. I must say, it’s nice to take a technological break from all the virtual meetings, classes, and hangout sessions. 

Sometimes your devices can become one of your vices.

2. Connect with others. 

When you’re exhausted, the tiredness gets to you. This may result in losing time spent with your loved ones. There’s no use in attending family dinners if you’re constantly glancing at your phone on the side to check for any updates from your friends on that group assignment or locking yourself away during meal times so that you can put in that extra hours of studying. 

When I was in burnout mode, I usually substituted my meals with coffee, causing me to lose track of time and not having proper family dinners. Hence, family events became a strictly ‘no-phone’ zone. Remember to make time for social outings with your friends too, without bringing your laptop! 

After all, nothing beats bonding time with the people closest to you.

3. Get your lifestyle checked

During my first year of degree, I heavily misinterpreted the meaning of the university student life, which to me meant doing anything that’ll boost that CGPA. 

Hence, my routine consisted of going to classes in the morning, revising in the afternoon, and completing my assignments at night. 

So, basically, studying 24/7.

Regardless of what you've visioned, don’t forget there’s so much more to life than studying and working! While we’re busy slaying university life, remember that it’s crucial to maintain a healthy diet. Skip the handcrafted coffees and sugary bubble tea and swap them for green teas and fruit instead.

I know I know. It’s easier said than done!

As someone who’s coffee-dependent throughout the gruelling weeks of deadlines, I hear you. However, your body will thank you in the long run. Binging on coffee and bubble teas will disrupt your sleeping schedule. Caffeine consumption reduces the secretion of melatonin (the hormone that regulates sleep) which means your sleep cycle will go haywire. Plus, even though caffeine may help you feel physically energised, your mind will be mentally exhausted. 

Hence, it’s better to catch that Z’s instead of producing lousy work. I’ve had my fair share of doing work while feeling groggy... when I finally took a nap, I woke up and re-read it. It was pure gibberish nonsense! Believe me, you might as well have that forty winks rather than ending up having to re-do your work!

Reminder:

“If you burn the midnight oil, you’ll pass with flying colours.” 

Do keep in mind that this glorified all-nighters routine only works for some. Most importantly, don’t try this out when you’re supposed to sit for an exam the next morning! You’ll just end up sleepy and mistake that white paper for your fluffy pillow!

4. Re-evaluate your personality, manage your responsibilities

One of the worst things a university student can do is to turn down an amazing offer. While it’s great to challenge yourself, you must think carefully before committing to long-term obligations. 

Your last semester’s bound to be one of your busiest one. Let go of the idea that success is tied up with being busy instead of being productive. I remember how I used to double-book (sometimes triple-book!) myself during my last semester. At the end of a busy day, I’d usually get a huge migraine due to all the things I made myself busy with. I had to learn the hard way of saying a simple, "No".

5. Change your destination, find your inspiration

When you’re feeling a burnout, you’ll probably not have much ideas flowing to complete your assignment. What happens next? You ask for a deadline extension and BAM!, you get the door slammed right in your face. 

While this may be an overdramatised version of what could possibly happen, let’s try to minimise the risk anyways. 

My ultimate go-to method for when the idea tank runs dry is to change my scenery. I'd go to various places — coffeehouses, workspace, a friend’s house, and even the cinema’s waiting area. I love to switch up my workplace every now and then (lowkey travel writer feels!). New environments (especially aesthetically pleasing ones) give good vibes and help combat writer’s block. 

When I was completing my FYP, I sat on the stairs by our lake, with the serene environment and beautiful view. Once, I’d even forgotten about our wandering goose! I remember when we locked eyes, I immediately bolted and swore off the place. So, remember to also be mindful when choosing your workplace else you may end up in a sticky situation.

6. Embrace it and get support

If the aforementioned symptoms resonate with you, you should acknowledge that you’re experiencing a burnout. A burnout can’t be put on hold even if you’re thinking, “I’ll just rest during sem break!”. It doesn’t work that way. Ignoring the red flags will put a toll on your emotional, physical, and mental health. It’s advisable to get your family in the loop and let them know what’s going on so that you’d have the necessary moral support. If you feel helpless and can’t talk to anyone you know, talk to a counsellor or your lecturer especially when it’s affecting your mental health.

Tip: You can always go to Taylor’s Centre Counselling Services (CCS) for emotional and psychological support.

We must admit — us university students deserve a pat on the back. 

C’mon! We’re juggling the full load — studies, extracurriculars, a social life, and for some, even a part-time job! Plus, you’ll be even more pressured during exam or assignment weeks. Nevertheless, your mental health and well-being must always come first. If you’re feeling demotivated, lethargic, and notice your grades going down, it’s time for a self-evaluation

Burnouts are best dealt with when it first creeps on you so I hope that my tips will help you through it.

Taylor’s alumni, Puteri Nelissa Milani completed her Bachelor of Business (Honours) Finance and Economics at Taylor's University in August 2020. She is also a journalist for the independent student-run organisation Financial Literacy for Youths: Malaysia (FLY: Malaysia).

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Puteri Nelissa Milani
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BEATING A BURNOUT

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