Feeling Burned Out? The Truth About Burnout Syndrome

Edited by Ann Marie Elpa 

“Be careful, if you study too hard, you’ll get burnout” is a phrase university students (especially U of T students) have probably often been told by their professors, families, and supportive peers. Although telling students to “watch out for burnout” is often meant as a form of support, it indicates an extreme misunderstanding of what burnout really is.


Often, burnout is used interchangeably with fatigue, mental tiredness, frustration, or just being overall “done” with the midterms you’re studying for; however, burnout is actually a serious condition that often is seldom spoken about. Burnout syndrome is defined as a state of extreme mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It often results from feeling overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands.  Often, burnout syndrome results from work environments were workers lack autonomy and whose skills are taken advantage of through low wages and lack of recognition.


Although many students may be inclined to think they are suffering from burnout syndrome as a result of the high demands of school and their families, to determine if you’re suffering from burnout syndrome, you must first understand what stress and prolonged stress are, the diagnosing process for burnout syndrome, and the medical side affects of burnout syndrome.

What is Stress?

Stress is the body’s involuntary (meaning uncontrolled) response to situations such as danger, coping with challenges, and coping with excitement. Stress can be both negative and positive, positive stress is known as eustress, which often serves as a form of motivation for achieving one’s goals and desires. Eustress may be the kind of “jitters” or excitement one experiences before going on a roller coaster ride or before a well-trained athlete competes in a swimming competition. Negative stress is referred to as distress, and it negatively affects one’s performance either long term or short term.  The American Psychological Association identifies 3 types of negative stress; acute stress, episodic stress, and chronic stress. Acute stress is often what is experienced by students, as it encompasses short term anxiousness related to upcoming events or demands in the future, and the physiological symptoms that accompany acute stress such as sweating, “stomach butterflies”, shortness of breath, and muscle tremors stop after the stressful situation passes.  Chronic stress is the type of stress associated with burnout syndrome, as chronic stress encompasses harmful long periods of stress that cause irreversible damage to one’s physical health and deterioration to one’s mental health. Chronic stress is associated with poor working environments, familial/spousal abuse, or long-term poverty. As the everyday trials and tribulations of being a student (i.e. midterms, presentations, peer drama, and assignments) are short term, therefore it is unlikely that the majority of students are suffering from the chronic stress associated with burnout.

The Diagnosing Process

Burnout Syndrome is usually diagnosed using a 22 question self report test measuring one’s levels of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and lack of personal accomplishment. There are also individual, organizational, and specific factors that are taken into consideration during the diagnosis. Individual factors include having poor self esteem, financial issues, or poor coping mechanisms, whereas organizational factors include heavy workload, lack of sufficient staff, and lack of leisure time given. To receive a diagnosis for Burnout Syndrome, it is necessary to talk to a license psychologist or psychiatrist.


Medical Side Effects

Personally speaking, as a student who is involved in multiple organizations, I’ve often been warned about “not getting burnt out”. However, after researching the medical side effects associated with burnout syndrome, I am 100% positive that this is not an illness I have ever experienced. Burnout Syndrome can result in serious mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol abuse, prolonged depression, anxiety/panic attacks, insomnia, loss of enjoyment, and suicidal thoughts due to the extreme chronic stress associated with burnout syndrome. As a student who loves school and leadership, never have I suffered the loss of enjoyment from any of my involvement, despite my experiences of acute stress. If you feel you are suffering from burnout syndrome, it is important to reach out to the appropriate resources for help and to point your peers to these resources if you see them struggling;

Suicide Prevention Line Toronto  408 4357 5463

Suicide Prevention Line Ontario  613 702 4446