Feeling the heat: A closer look at Stanford burnout

March 13, 2019, 1:00 a.m.

Four years is a long time to sustain Stanford’s fast pace. As a freshman, I often wondered how I could care about everything I was doing and still feel unmotivated, exhausted and done. I couldn’t reconcile my appreciation for Stanford with the dread that loomed large with every small task: sending an email, walking into my dorm, making small talk or just going to class.

Now, I know that I was feeling burnt out.

If you’re a Stanford student, you’ve probably experienced burnout at some point, or encountered peers who have. What is it about Stanford — or college, or millennials, or life — that wears us out? On Jan. 5, BuzzFeed News Reporter Anne Helen Petersen wrote a now-viral essay titled “How Millennials became the Burnout Generation,” sparking conversations across the internet about the epidemic impacting 20-somethings across the globe.

“Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done?” Petersen wrote, referring to what she called “errand paralysis,” an inability to knock the simple things — such as responding to emails, or returning unwanted Amazon packages — off her ever-growing to-do list. “[It’s] because I’m burned out … I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time.”

From Facebook feeds to Twitter threads, Petersen’s article was everywhere on the internet. But burnout isn’t new, and it isn’t just a millennial thing. Writers began churning out responses, like Tiana Clark’s feature on “Black Burnout” to Jonathan Malesic’s counter “Millennials Don’t have a Monopoly on Burnout.” If you were to Google “millennial burnout” right now, chances are you’d find something published in the last week. Talk about a hot topic; there’s something about burnout that strikes a chord with most of us.

Stanford students are the perfect case study for burnout. With fast-paced quarters and the ensuing pressure to succeed, Stanford’s work environment is particularly predisposed to burnout, according to Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam. It’d be hard not to burn out, whether you’re an undergrad, faculty, grad student, administrator or staff member. I spoke with recent undergraduate alums to get the scoop on burnout, and how it affected them during their time at Stanford and beyond.

Burnout: What is it?

“Being burnt out was like having a flat tire but still having two hours to drive. There’s nowhere to stop, and you’re trapped in your car,” said AJ Williams ’18. “You can pull over or slow down but it only feels worse because you still have two hours to go, and you have to do it.”

While commonly applied to those in “helping professions” such as doctors and nurses, burnout is now a widely-regarded phenomenon. It is a state of “chronic overwork,” according to Inge Hansen, a CAPS psychologist and assistant director for Outreach, Equity and Inclusion, as well as director of the Weiland Health Initiative, which promotes wellness for students of various gender and sexual identities. Symptoms of burnout include physical, mental and/or emotional exhaustion, feelings of detachment, cynicism towards one’s work, reduced performance, anxiety and depression and sometimes irritability or anger.

These symptoms became real for students like Andrew Vasquez ’16. Almost every quarter at Stanford left him exhausted and drained from endless piles of work.

“Burnout is the feeling of just dreading everything,” said Vasquez. “[It’s] wishing I could do nothing but sleep.”

For Vasquez, each quarter was a race to the finish, and at the end he was more relieved than anything, glad to have simply made it through. Yet, Vasquez says that burnout is not his default state; he didn’t feel burnt out in high school, and hasn’t felt burnt out since leaving Stanford.

How do Stanford students reach this point of working themselves to exhaustion, where we’re always awaiting the next break? What makes our environment so conducive to burnout?

Causes and coping mechanisms

Incoming students — especially high-achieving students — from intense high school backgrounds are sometimes already on the verge of burnout, according to Hansen. They worked so hard in high school to get into schools like Stanford, and they carry that pressure with them once they’re here. Once at Stanford, the external and internal pressure to achieve at a high standard of excellence doesn’t let up; we may feel pressure from our families or communities, pressure from comparing ourselves to our peers and the internal pressure of living up to our own perfectionist standards.

But for some students who come from backgrounds less focused on high-intensity pre-collegiate training, their experience at Stanford can be much different. Perhaps this is how Shayla Harris ’18 managed to miss the burnout bullet.

“I didn’t feel external pressure while I was here, whether from my parents, or peers or Silicon Valley culture,” said Harris, who majored in political science. “It probably helps that I don’t consider myself a techie … I never felt like this [tech] world had any power or influence on me because I’d never chosen to give it any. I never based my ideas of what it means to be happy or successful from it.”

Supported by her frosh dorm friend group and ultimate Frisbee team, Harris evaded burnout while her peers’ flames dimmed around her, as they struggled with mental health issues and burnout.

There is more to the burnout equation than an intense pre-collegiate upbringing, however. Balancing a constantly heavy workload, social engagements, extracurriculars and career and internship search contributes to an often-unhealthy and non-stop work culture. This intensity can inspire us to be and do our best, but living up to sky-high standards while trying to make the most of Stanford’s endless opportunities can become overwhelming. We overcommit to a point where even the things we love become chores.

For students facing financial concerns, there’s sometimes no other choice.

“One of the reasons I had to push so hard to work and tutor [as a student] was because I was paying for most of my schooling,” said Amanda McNary ’16. “I didn’t have the liberty of taking an extra quarter.”

For others, lifestyle choices like a lack of sleep contributed to burnout.

“My lack of sleep caused my burnout,” said Paulina Chamely ’18. We’d discussed her multiple burnout quarters, how the online course scheduling platform Carta saved her life and how the quarter system can sometimes wreck you. Above all, Chamely underscored the importance of sleep.

“Some aspect of burnout was me being delusional from not sleeping [enough],” Chamely said. “I’d wake up feeling like a truck hit me. How are you gonna go through your day [feeling like that]?”

In other words: Sleep is life. It can be a coping mechanism for burnout, along with healthy habits like exercise or taking breaks — if you can get over the guilt that often afflicts students when they rest.

Taking a break is one of the most powerful antidotes to burnout. Some students venture off campus, and some seek solace by leaving the country entirely. Studying abroad is appealing as more than a fun, multi-cultural opportunity; it’s a chance to escape Stanford and rejuvenate.

Some students even take a leave of absence to cope with burnout.

After four years at Stanford and unfinished requirements, Akwasi Abrefah ’12 took five academic quarters off before returning in spring 2014 to complete his degree.

“Did burnout have anything to do with that?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Abrefah responded. “I probably should have done it earlier. Since sophomore year, I existed in a state of burnout until I took time off.”

For Abrefah, part of burnout is thinking that you can get to the next step, all while waiting for the next break. He believes that taking time off allowed him to focus on things he wanted to do like learning to cook, working part-time and biking around the Bay. Abrefah needed to be healthy to return to school and participate the way he wanted.

Being proactive in scheduling breaks is another way to keep burnout at bay.

Marissa Floro, postdoctoral psychology fellow in the Gender & Sexual Identities Track, wrote in an email to The Daily that proactive planning, self-care and self-compassion create more sustainable work habits. Hansen also recommends that students KonMariTM their extracurriculars, activities and classes, referring to Marie Kondo’s decluttering method showcased in the Netflix show “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” It means letting go of anything that doesn’t spark joy.

A strong support system and open communication are also powerful forces for counteracting burnout. Stanford’s Duck Syndrome — the idea that we all appear to be doing fine on the surface but are paddling furiously underwater to stay afloat — creates an unhealthy environment in which we do not share our struggles.

And yet, talking to someone else and hearing their perspective can be grounding and calming for someone experiencing burnout. Connecting with an advisor, mentor, friend or counselor can help you feel understood, supported and less alone.

“We need a better environment around showing our struggles,” said Abrefah. “[Then] we would be okay with taking more breaks, taking care of ourselves and setting better goals.”

Abrefah believes such a change would “fundamentally change the Stanford identity.” Vasquez added that counteracting burnout requires a shift in the messaging that Stanford promotes to undergrads.

Such a cultural shift is not easy, and as a mentor to current and incoming students, Vasquez admits that supporting someone with burnout can be a catch-22: “Doing less might make you feel bad, and doing more is exhausting, so how do you win?”

We win by reframing our ideas of success, excellence and productivity, according to Vasquez. We win by setting healthy boundaries and expectations.

Elam acknowledges that university administrators sometimes add to students’ stress, but he emphasizes efforts to support students such as revamping advising programs, improving counseling and psychological services, strategic planning led by Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole and running Frosh 101 — a one-unit reflection seminar hosted in frosh dorms.

“[It’s important to] take time and think about what’s motivating you,” Elam concluded. “Rather than thinking that [Stanford] is a means to an end, think about being in the moment and making the most of it.”

After Stanford

What happens when undergrad students reach the end of their Stanford journey? Graduation leaves students feeling the gamut of emotions: nervous, bittersweet, sad, disappointed, stressed and, of course, tired.

Vasquez recalls that it took him about a year post-graduation to recover from his sleep deprivation. He now works as program administrator for the Leland Scholars Program, where he mentors incoming and current students who identify as first-generation and/or low-income.

With this job, Vasquez says he can maintain a healthy work-life balance, make time for himself and improve his well-being through activities like spending time with people he cares about and going outside.

“Stanford was zero to 60,” said Vasquez. “Post-graduation was 60 to zero. That’s what I needed.”

For some students, this abrupt transition can be difficult, especially when faced with finding a job.

“The transition from ‘I figured out everything’ to the opposite was rough,” said Leopold Wambersie ’16, who enjoyed a fun senior year with communities he cared about, such as his co-op Hammarskjöld​. After graduation, the lack of structured community and the pressure to find a job as an international student were stressful for Wambersie.

Now, Wambersie is pursuing a master’s degree in urban planning at the University of California, Berkeley. He describes his current lifestyle as a combination of school and independent living; Wambersie studies during the day then hangs out with non-student friends on evenings, a balance he enjoys.

Other students graduate but stay at Stanford, such as those pursuing coterminal master’s degrees who sometimes remain enrolled for an additional year.

Chamely, now a coterminal student in the biology department, says that she wasn’t ready to leave Stanford after graduation. She enjoyed spring quarter of her senior year because she knew she was returning.

After one quarter of being a master’s student, Chamely thinks she may finally be ready to leave Stanford, either because she has closure or because she’s burnt out.

Above all, alums and administrators alike emphasize the importance of taking breaks and prioritizing one’s health and well-being while at Stanford.

“I hope people realize that Stanford is not the most important thing and prioritize themselves a little bit,” said Williams, who now works full-time at a startup in San Francisco, where she lives with her husky malamute, Jake. “Putting yourself first when you’re burnt out is really important and key to mental health.”

Contact Astrid Casimire at acasimir ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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