Until this semester, LSA sophomore Tess Klygis had not sat in a physical classroom since high school. With the ability to return to campus this year, Klygis said she could not wait to engage with her professors, live with her sorority sisters and participate in the numerous organizations she had joined the previous year in-person.
Even though she was participating in almost the exact same activities from her freshman year, around the end of September Klygis said she began to feel an unfamiliar sense of exhaustion.
“Every week or so I have a day where I just feel like I can’t do any more,” Klygis said. “I have just been working, working, working, to no avail.”
What Klygis is experiencing has become a buzzword in 2021: burnout. And she’s not alone.
An Indeed survey found that the average burnout rate for all age groups across the nation increased 9% in 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels, with a record-high 58% of Generation-Z individuals experiencing burnout. Another recent survey taken by students at The Ohio State University found that burnout levels rose dramatically in just eight months — from 40% in August 2020 to 71% in April 2021.
But what exactly is burnout? Dr. Katherine J. Gold, an associate professor of family medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School, told The Michigan Daily that this is a question she frequently encounters, and unfortunately, one the medical community has not yet answered.
In 2019, the World Health Organization added “burn-out” to the International Classification of Diseases, though they noted it is not officially classified as a medical condition. Gold said WHO’s definition of burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” is one of the most frequently cited in research on the topic. However, she said measuring burnout empirically — especially across different studies — presents several challenges when attempting to compare data and conclusions.
“Burnout has a number of measures that are used to try to systematically compare it across studies,” Gold said. “The concern is that there are more than 180 different measures of burnout, so there’s not great consensus.”
Because it has only recently emerged as a major topic of interest during the pandemic, Gold said research on the presence of burnout in academia is just beginning. In a study she published about burnout within the Department of Family Medicine in October 2020, Gold said she found burnout was more prevalent among women. In her other research projects, Gold also noted that burnout affected younger people at a disproportionately higher rate.
Gold emphasized the importance of distinguishing between burnout and depression. According to Gold, burnout should be understood as a purely occupational or academic issue, while depression equally affects an individual in and outside of the workplace. Burnout can generally be mitigated by social and structural changes to the work environment. On the other hand, being diagnosed with depression often necessitates clinical treatment and medication.
“People often confuse burnout and depression … and I just like to clarify that burnout is different because burnout is having symptoms specifically related to your work,” Gold said. “When you’re outside of your work setting when you’re not doing anything work-related, you feel fine. Depression is something that carries across all parts of your life.”
Dr. Kara Zivin, a professor of psychiatry at the U-M Medical School, agreed about the necessary distinction between advising those experiencing burnout and those with clinical depression. Zivin said that in some instances burnout can actually be the more difficult of the two for mental health professionals to adequately address. In a study she published with Gold in 2020, Zivin analyzed data about the levels of “emotional exhaustion” — one component of burnout — reported by Michigan Medicine faculty in a 2017 survey.
Zivin said one of her team’s main conclusions was that individual coping strategies, including forms of physical and mental exercise, did not seem to help mitigate burnout. Burnout is a result of institutional stress, Zivin said, meaning any solution needs to start within the institution itself.
“I think these issues come from a more systemic or organizational level and lead you to feel overwhelmed and depleted,” Zivin said. “By putting (self-care) back on the individual, it just becomes another item on your to-do list.”
Students like Klygis agreed with Zivin that mindful practices at the individual level are not effective long-term solutions to burnout. Klygis said she recently took up running in an attempt to de-stress. However, on days when work is piling up and she could benefit from a break the most, Klygis said she has the least amount of time to devote to self-care.
“I’ve started going on runs when I feel really overwhelmed,” Klygis said. “I’ll just put my headphones in and put my phone on Do Not Disturb so I don’t get any notifications. I only run for 15 to 30 minutes … but even finding time for that is sometimes hard.”
LSA junior Katie Good is the co-director of the University’s chapter of Active Minds. Good’s student organization works to promote Active Minds’ national mission at the campus level by facilitating conversations about student mental well-being. Good said her organization offers events and provides resources for students to alleviate stress in their day-to-day routines.
From engaging with Active Minds organization members and event participants, Good said she has noticed most students are making an individual effort to reduce burnout but are still struggling with constant stress. She voiced frustration with the lack of acknowledgement she has seen from U-M administration about burnout with the return to campus, including the recent Fall Study Break being explicitly labeled to emphasize academic work.
“Everyone on this campus is burned out, but none of the emails that we get from administration are talking about how we’re burned out, so you feel alienated,” Good said. “Institutionally, if we were more supported and it was understood how prevalent burnout is, especially on such a competitive campus, we wouldn’t have to do so much for ourselves individually.”
Another student organization promoting positive mental health conversations on campus is PULSE. LSA junior Vaishnavi Krishnan, a PULSE executive board member, said PULSE explores “wellbeing” as a multifaceted concept. Besides physical and mental wellbeing, Krishnan said it is important to talk about academic, financial and spiritual interpretations of wellbeing, among others.
Krishnan agreed with Good about the need for institutional changes to the University’s mental health framework. Even though their organization is relatively small, Krishnan said PULSE tries to encourage students to communicate with each other about stress by holding workshops open to all students. Their overall goal, Krishnan said, is to gradually shift campus culture away from accepting burnout as the norm.
“If I’m speaking to someone else about burnout … I want to feel respected, validated and not feel dismissed,” Krishnan said. “Sometimes as college students, if someone tells us, ‘Hey, I’m stressed,’ the other person might respond like, ‘I am too. We’re all stressed. College is hard for everyone.’ That can be reassuring to some people, but sometimes that doesn’t feel great.”
The University has begun to make some institutional changes in an effort to mitigate burnout on campus this year. The Daily spoke with Kathleen Robertson and Kelcey J. Stratton, director and Resiliency and Well-Being Services program manager, respectively, at the U-M Office of Counseling and Workplace Resilience for Michigan Medicine. Both Robertson and Stratton discussed the creation of physical spaces that are specifically designed to promote mental wellbeing.
On Oct. 12, University Counseling and Psychological Services opened its third campus Wellness Zone in the Michigan Union. The Wellness Zone is on the fourth floor of the Union and includes massage chairs, yoga mats, meditation tools and warm drinks to promote relaxation.
Similar to the Wellness Zones, Michigan Medicine opened three Recharge Rooms in the hospital this past April. The low-lit rooms include comfortable chairs, candles, greenery and most notably, projected nature displays. Robertson said the Recharge Rooms were designed by researchers from the Mount Sinai hospital system in New York.
“When you walk in them because the lights are low, it’s almost immediately transformative,” Robertson said.
Stratton and Robertson said the rooms have consistently been used more and more by Michigan Medicine faculty and staff since they opened and the preliminary feedback is positive. The creation of spaces with no purpose other than to support mental health, Stratton said, is a meaningful step towards an organizational commitment to well-being in the workplace at the University.
“Burnout is complex and requires looking at practices, policies, systems … to find other creative ways that we can help take care of people, and help them take care of themselves,” Stratton said.
Klygis said she hopes the University continues to look into ways to make the transition back to in-person learning less stressful. For now, Klygis said she’s doing her best to make it through the semester by taking advantage of every second of break time she has to sprint around Ann Arbor in the autumn sunshine.
“I’m in the process of setting up some tutoring sessions for one of my classes,” Klygis said. “Other than that, in terms of managing stress I’m kind of relying on the Google Calendar and my running shoes.”
Daily Staff Reporter Roni Kane can be reached at email@example.com.