How can I help students (and myself) avoid burnout?

8 min read
December 7, 2022

Burnout can happen to everyone at some point or another– while you may feel like you’re able to handle all that life throws at you, burnout can occur if you get so busy that you forget to rest and take care of yourself. When someone experiences excessive and prolonged stress, they can be left feeling emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausted. Burnout can also have the ability to leave you feeling hopeless– reducing productivity, and leaving you with a weakened sense of motivation and self-esteem. Studies have shown that psychological stress can even negatively affect the immune system. Here are some signs that you or someone you know may be experiencing burnout:

  • Every day feels like a bad day
  • Putting work and energy into things like school or work seems like a waste of time
  • Tasks seem dull or overwhelming
  • You feel emotionally drained or numb
  • You have trouble falling asleep and/or staying asleep

Teens may be juggling academics, extra-curricular activities, friends, partners, family, and pressures from peers and social media– all during a time when they are developing and first exploring their independence. In a 2013 survey of adults and teens, teens reported stress levels during the school year far exceeding what they believed to be healthy. Despite this reality, there are some proactive steps you can take to help prevent burnout– for both you and your students. 

Avoid perfectionism

Perfectionism is the need to always feel, appear, and be perfect. While perfectionists may excel in setting and meeting their ambitious goals, perfectionism can lead to serious problems like depression and lowered self-esteem. When the pressures of perfectionism become too overwhelming, burnout may occur. Even though perfectionism may be seen positively, it can lead to an irrational and excessive worry about making mistakes. 

Failure is a normal part of life and it’s something that we’ll all experience. However, people struggling with perfectionism may see their failures as a sign of their lack of self-worth or value. 

Perfectionism and anxiety may go hand in hand. Perfectionists often experience a flood of anxious thoughts and feelings when they feel like their performance is below the excessively high standards that they set for themselves. Those coping with perfectionism tend to see life in extremes: things are either all bad or all good, and they either succeed at whatever they are doing or fail completely. Unsurprisingly, this all-or-nothing mindset can lead to heightened levels of anxiety and can leave individuals to dwell on their mistakes and negative thoughts. 

Teach your students (and yourself) to avoid perfectionism by trying to be aware of your negative tendencies and triggers. Notice when you see yourself being overly critical and try to stop yourself from spiraling into thoughts of judgment. You can also encourage a growth mindset within both you and your students. A growth mindset describes a way of thinking in which “people believe their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.” (Dweck, 2015) Focus on and praise students (and yourself) for learning and making progress, not for aiming for perfection. 

Practice self-compassion

One of the best ways to combat both burnout and perfectionism is self-compassion. Remind yourself of all of the things you have accomplished and give yourself credit for all of the hard work that you have put in.

Kristin Neff, author, and researcher on the subject of self-compassion describes this skill as replacing our inner critic with a voice of understanding. Rather than constantly beating yourself up and pointing out your shortcomings, you can practice giving yourself care and support,  especially during challenging times. A recent study has shown that self-compassion can help teachers prevent burnout by helping them experience fewer negative emotions and remain emotionally balanced in difficult situations.

Take breaks for your brain and your body

Toxic productivity and the need to always be “on” or doing something can take a toll on your mind and your body. It’s impossible to always stay focused and productive; breaks are needed to recharge and refresh your mind. 

Working in longer intervals is not as effective as working in shorter bursts, so it’s best to encourage your students to use techniques like time blocking or the pomodoro timer to better organize their time. These methods can help someone intentionally schedule breaks throughout the day, which can also help individuals feel more in control of their life. 

Teachers can also incorporate stretching breaks throughout the school day, or even encourage students to take short walks or snack breaks in between lessons. This shows your students that they are not expected to be always working and that balance is key. Helping students build this sense of self-awareness can help them find more sustainable ways of working and learning. 

Don’t be afraid to seek help

Sometimes, burnout is inevitable. The pressures of life can make it hard to “keep everything together”. However, help is always available– for both you and your students. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that can help people struggling with things like perfectionism, low self-esteem, and high levels of self-criticism. A therapist can help someone reframe their thoughts and give them a better understanding of any potential deeper reasoning behind persistent feelings of anxiety or lack of motivation. Seek help for your students and yourself if needed. 

Tip: Brain Health Basics is a free 1-hr program that you can easily adopt in your classroom to help students understand their mental health, build the vocabulary to talk about it, and self-advocate.

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