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Burning Up and Out

November 08, 2021
by Margaret Hankins

Burnout was one of those words that I couldn’t offer a definition for, but I knew it when I felt it. For me, burnout is procrastinating on writing this very blog entry about burnout because midterm season is very exhausting. But it’s also the sense of emotions run dry and the (not entirely rational, I know) growing resentment for the people I decide to do a favor for. Turns out, each of these instances aligns with a different symptom of burnout as defined in the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases: decreased personal accomplishment, emotional exhaustion, and depersonalization or “mental distance.”

Burnout is common in the American workforce, and the situation only worsened during the pandemic, with 52 percent of Americans experiencing the condition in 2021. But burnout hasn’t affected everyone equally. In Gallup’s “life evaluation” poll, which measures the subjective well-being of Americans, 47 percent of employed, female respondents said they were “struggling” or “suffering.” (These designations are allocated based on how respondents rate their current life and future life on a scale of zero to 10.) In comparison, 43 percent of male respondents were considered “struggling” or “suffering.”

This gender discrepancy is likely a combination of men being less likely to report anxiety/stress due to traditional gender roles and expectations, women undertaking 2.6 times more unpaid domestic labor than men, and women being promoted less often than men.

But what’s happening on college campuses, before the demands of adult professional and home lives set in?

Overall, college students are stressed. We were stressed before the pandemic and even more stressed now. At Ohio State, self-reported burnout among students increased from 40 percent in August 2020 to 71 percent in April 2021.However, the clear gender divisions that exist on the job are more confused in college. In one small Canadian study from 2006, women in college reported lower levels of personal accomplishment and more stress than men than men whereas men on campus reported higher levels of depersonalization than women. On the upside, women also reported more positive contacts and support systems to provide an emotional connection to ease some stress.

47 percent of employed, female respondents said they were “struggling” or “suffering.”

Unfortunately, there is little research on gender differences in academic burnout among university students. A literature review conducted in 2017 found only eight articles about gender differences in burnout in college. Currently, the bulk of research into burnout focuses on occupational burnout, especially in health care fields. Does this research about occupational burnout translate to college? Or is there something about the professional, post-collegiate world that poses unique challenges to mental health? And, with many colleges offering some form of counseling or mental health treatment, do men and women’s help-seeking methods differ from each other and from methods in professional life?

Working on this post has already helped with my burnout. Knowing the symptoms and being able to attribute my exhaustion and impatience to something makes my own burnout feel more manageable. I hope with more research the sense that burnout is something manageable and finite becomes more widespread.

Margaret is a sophomore at Trumbull College studying Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. Read more from Margaret on WHRY's blog: "Why Didn't I Know This?

Submitted by Rick Harrison on November 08, 2021