Burnout culture is a social phenomenon that dominates U of T, and one that is constantly idealized. It is characterized by students who overload themselves with responsibilities and work nonstop, regardless of how much they may be struggling inside.
Burnout culture is students trying to one-up each other about who got less sleep last night while loading themselves up on copious amounts of caffeine. It’s the reason why you joined a club that you weren’t truly passionate about, but felt like it would look good on a graduate school application. It’s the belief that you would finally be proud of yourself if your GPA was just one letter grade higher. Ultimately, burnout culture is viewing mental and physical exhaustion as a side effect of success, rather than a consequence of being overworked.
I don’t think I would be making an erroneous statement by saying that it is the norm for U of T students to push themselves to the very limits of their physical and mental health in order to be successful. We see this manifest in students sleeping in the library surrounded by their notes and students who juggle four clubs all at once.
Don’t get me wrong — it is always important to give credit where credit is due and congratulate students who achieve impressive extracurricular feats, earn top marks, or start their own businesses. These accomplishments are all worthy of recognition and praise, but singling them out as the only and highest form of success that a student can achieve sends the toxic message that a student’s self-worth is based solely on their academic and extracurricular achievements.
Recovery, kindness, mental health, and happiness, all important markers of success, cannot be measured on a scale, but they should be viewed as having equal — if not greater — importance as more concrete achievements.
Student perspectives on burnout
Burnout culture is rooted in the idea that endless hard work is the key to success and will ultimately pay off in the end, yet this leaves students with minimal time for rest, time to spend with friends and family, or time to have fun — all critical components of a happy and healthy life.
The ultimate outcome of burnout culture is a body of students that is burned out. Stress is a natural and arguably healthy part of a person’s life. It can help create a sense of urgency to remain productive. However, according to the Center of Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), burnout can feel very draining. Stress presents itself as overactive and hyperactive, but burnout produces “a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.”
“I know I’m burned out when I’m absolutely unmotivated to do everything,” said Karley Rynard, a second-year Rotman Commerce student. “I wake up in the morning and I’m sleeping in and I’m accidentally missing classes and I’m starting to fall behind on everything.”
Her experience is not an unusual one. Victoria Vesovski, a second-year student majoring in Equity Studies with a double minor in Sociology and English, describes her experience with burnout as a frustrating inability to focus on her course work.
“When I’m editing a paper and I’m just looking at it and I don’t even understand what I’m reading — I’m just staring at the screen,” Vesovski said.
Feeling like you must force yourself to power through assignments even when you are exhausted is a direct consequence of burnout culture. The order of priorities for many students starts with their academic and extracurricular workload, then come sleep, physical exercise, and nutritious food — and sadly, iced coffee doesn’t count.
Rynard added that the urgency of projects she is working on has an impact on her sleep schedule. “I’m going to stay up until it’s done,” she said. “On average, I stay up pretty late anyway, like 2:00 am, sometimes 3:00 am.”
Being in this environment, it is discouraging to work so hard only to meet the crushing wave of hopelessness in your final years of university when many entry-level jobs require three or more years of work experience. Each year, the time a student is willing to sacrifice for better grades and a résumé that will ‘stand out from the crowd’ grows, alongside their nearness to their emotional and physiological breaking point.
Everett Smith, a Varsity athlete and second-year Rotman Commerce student, spoke about the reasons we still push ourselves to our breaking points, regardless of the effects on our bodies. As an athlete, he experiences some physical symptoms of burnout, such as exhaustion, which manifests in requiring naps just to get through the day.
“I would say most of the time, I feel like I’m never doing enough,” Smith said. “There’s such a high volume of things you need to know over all the courses that you’re in and extracurriculars that you’re taking.”
It is critical to note that the symptoms of burnout can be obvious and subtle. CAMH listed some observable signs such as disrupted sleep, reclusive and withdrawn behaviour, and a loss of confidence.
Social media’s troubling impact, and other pressures
Not only do U of T students feel the pressure to push themselves to tolerate unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety in the name of success, but scrolling through social media takes us on another emotional rollercoaster as well. There’s a fascinating duality to social media: it has the power to bring us the greatest feelings of validation and community while also dragging our self-esteem through the dirt.
From scrolling past endless photos of smartly dressed students on LinkedIn, to obsessing over Instagram models with skinny bodies and flawless skin — social media is the place that, regardless of the community it provides, becomes a sinking pit of self-confidence for many. We have convinced ourselves that unless we are academically successful, well-liked, and conventionally attractive all at once and all the time, then we are somehow lacking and simply not trying hard enough, unlike the ‘oh-so perfect’ people online. We love to glorify the very thing that we can never achieve — perfection, or rather, the illusion of it.
Anny Fong, an organizational behaviour instructor at Rotman Commerce and human resources instructor at the Centre for Industrial Issues and Human Resources, commented on how we’ve allowed social media to trick us into thinking perfection is a reasonable goal.
“We’re now living in an era where we unfairly, unhealthily, and obsessively compare ourselves to others,” Fong said. “People post their successes, their adventures, the newest gadgets, whatever it is on their social media, and it leads others to think that we have this fabulous life, or [that] other people have this fabulous life. In reality, we don’t know the full picture, we don’t know their challenges, [and] we don’t know what they’re going through.”
It is easy to come to the conclusion that the reason our life pales in comparison to the glamorous tales of success we’ve read about is that we are simply not working hard enough. It is easy to feel like you are alone when you feel overwhelmed by your commitments — academic, extracurricular, and personal.
Another issue with burnout culture is that although everyone understands that mental health issues affect so many students on campus, we continue to feel like we can’t reach out, nor do we always check in with others.
Rynard spoke about her own experiences with this feeling of disconnectedness with her peers. “I feel like certain people try to make it seem like they’re not stressed and kind of have this false appearance to them,” she said.
If everybody puts up a tough facade, this only further perpetuates the idea that being burned out is a necessary part of success — but it’s also a side that must be hidden from view to maintain the image of effortless achievement. It narrows the amount of people who will feel comfortable opening up about their troubles.
The elitist pressures of academia are some of the toughest to overcome as a student. It’s also no secret that the behaviour and teaching style of a professor can make or break a student’s learning experience and overall sense of happiness in class. Fong encourages other members of the U of T community and faculty to put themselves in the shoes of others, such as students.
“I think it’s important to come to class with empathy, with an open mind to understand and listen, a willingness to help, and a cognizance that everyone is fighting their own battles, whether they’re visible or not,” she shared. “Many times we just need to be reassured that someone cares about us.”
Finding balanced footing
With all these ever-present stressors at U of T, students and faculty alike need to find ways to manage their stress. Fong believes the answer is mindfulness, and the willingness to treat yourself and others gently.
“We need to [be] mindful of the stressors that we’re under, but also be cognizant that we’re constantly at risk of being burned out,” she explained. “I think it’s really important for us to know that none of us are immune, all of us are subject to burnout. It’s really important that we take care of our health and that we’re kind to ourselves.”
Finding balance as a U of T student is tough, but not impossible. Rynard shared some of the healthy ways she tries to prevent burnout and keep herself emotionally healthy. “Sometimes I think I have healthy habits for coping with stress,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll go to the gym, or talk to my mom, or call a friend… and kind of just vent about how I feel.”
Smith said, “One of the most effective things is just getting it off your brain, doing something different, allowing yourself to focus on something different.”
Vesovski reassures students that enjoying some down time isn’t a bad thing. “I’d say take a break,” she said. “It’s okay to do your readings a day later, and even if you have a planned schedule, it’s okay to not [follow] the schedule sometimes and just take time to yourself.”
There is power in vulnerability when it comes to creating a more accepting and forgiving learning environment. Smith stressed the importance of having go-to people in your life whom you can open up to when you feel like you are having a hard time. “I think a big thing about it is having friends to reach out to, [which] makes a huge difference,” he said.
Understanding the importance of mental health and taking care of oneself are growing amongst students and faculty. There are more resources available now than ever, and we are starting to acknowledge the dangerous consequences of pushing ourselves to our emotional and physical limits. We are beginning to understand that it is the culture among the U of T community that allows the cycle of self-neglect to continue.
We should take a breather before all our energy and motivation is gone and encourage our friends, colleagues, and students to do the same. Neglecting your sleep, health, and well-being to finish an assignment should be met with concern, not admiration. An extracurricular activity should add a positive experience to your university career that will provide you with happy memories, not just leadership experience that you can put on your cover letter.
Listen to your friends and seek help if you believe that you or someone close to you needs it. Talk about the problems you see, and then do something about them, because acknowledgement without action helps no one. Let’s treat burnout for what it is — our bodies and minds trying to tell us to treat ourselves with a little more love, patience, and kindness.
Editor’s note (March 3, 11:30 am): The Varsity mistakenly published the wrong pronouns for a source. The Varsity regrets the error.