What Is Academic Burnout and How Can You Avoid It?

With the rapid changes in our lives due to the COVID-19 crisis, we are suddenly exposed to new kinds of stress — how can we cope with the situation and avoid burnout?


The world has gone through some significant changes in the past few months and, undoubtedly, so have you. The home has now become the office, the classroom, the restaurant or cafeteria, and — to some — the prison. The lines between our personal and professional lives have become blurred. The average reported stress level for U.S. adults related to the coronavirus pandemic is 5.9 out of 10. When asked to rate their stress level in general, the average reported stress for U.S. adults is 5.4. This is significantly higher than the average stress level reported in the 2019 Annual Stress in America survey, which was 4.9, and marks the first significant increase in average reported stress since the survey began in 2007. Exploring these types of stress, finding coping mechanisms, and learning how to avoid burnout need to become part of our daily routine in order to maintain mental and physical wellbeing.

Who can experience burnout?

You tend to hear a lot about those in the helping professions, especially doctors, social workers, and nurses being prone to stress and burnout. Furthermore, athletes who specialize in one sport too early tend to be subject to both physical and mental burnout. So although both sets of professions are different, the stress of burnout crosses many types of jobs. The important thing to remember is that you don’t need to be a pro athlete or work in a high-stress environment to experience stress or burnout. Burnout is a reaction to bad stress we don’t cope with. This stress could be associated with work, family, academics, athletics, and of course, a global health crisis. Personally, I’ve experienced burnout in most of those categories and I know I’m not alone.

Good versus bad stress

In your lifetime, various forms of stress will present itself. Some will be good, like when having to deliver a presentation to your peers that you're prepared for. Good stress is important in our lives, it keeps us feeling challenged. Once it’s over it fills you with an enormous sense of accomplishment. Examples of this are short term pressure along with mild anxiety before completing a task.

Bad stress, on the other hand, is something that needs to be coped with and adequately managed in order to move forward. An example of this is being housebound while still working full-time and attempting to keep a sense of normalcy among your family (*cough, cough* — COVID). If we don’t properly cope with this bad stress, it can pile up and lead us to feel completely burnt out.

Managing stress in times of COVID-19 to avoid burnout

Currently, our world is undergoing a unique transformation. There is no clear separation between home, work, education, family, and extracurricular activities, which can become extremely stressful. For example, if you are currently undertaking an online academic program, you’ve most likely turned a room in your home into an office, and although you try your best to carve out time to dedicate to your studies, your spouse/child/parent/pet tends to interrupt. If not managed properly, this type of stress will manifest itself and cause you to burn out. As a working mom of a three-year-old, I deal with this stress each day, and I’ve found the following tips make a huge difference:

  • Remember you are only one person. Many parents are currently struggling with wearing multiple hats during the COVID-19 crisis. Working and learning from home with children (no matter their age) is difficult. Sticking to a schedule can be difficult (especially with young children) and it’s important to remember that you can’t do everything all the time. Take a breath and take each hour as it comes.
  • If your day doesn’t go according to plan, brush it off. Tomorrow is a new day and another chance to succeed. This is something I’ve had to tell myself over and over. Juggling working full-time with a three-year-old is frustrating, but whenever I feel like I didn’t get enough work done, or I didn’t spend enough time with my daughter, or could have spent a few minutes learning a new concept or skill, I tell myself, “There’s always tomorrow.”
  • Focus on the good. Right now, the days seem to melt into one another and it’s becoming more difficult to distinguish the little milestones (good or bad). One bad work email or one insane meltdown from your child can completely distort your day. Instead, cope with the bad and keep track of the good. At the end of your day, take a moment and go over all the good and you’ll see how positive the day really was.

While focusing on the good and using these strategies, you’ll hopefully be able to cope with the current situation a little better. Remember that we’re in this together!