What is Burnout, and How Can You Manage It?


by Nikita Thadani

You may have heard the phrase “I’m so burnt out” before. You may have said this phrase yourself – before grad school or during. This phrase certainly pops up more frequently around this time of year, with final papers, exams, and deadlines approaching. But what is burnout? There are several definitions of burnout – let’s take a look at a few of them. 

Notebook papers, sticky notes, and a planner on top. The planner has a section titled "To do list." In red sharpie written underneath says "SO MANY THINGS"
  • Mirriam-Webster Dictionary defines burnout as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.”1
  • The World Health Organization uses the ICD-11 (International Classification of Diseases, 11th edition) definition of burnout, which is “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”2
  • Psychology Today defines burnout as “a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress. Though it’s most often caused by problems at work, it can also appear in other areas of life, such as parenting, caretaking, or romantic relationships.”3

As you can see, while these three definitions of burnout are similar, they are not all the same. This is because burnout, as a term, has not been designated a clear definition yet, which has been agreed upon by mental health professionals. In fact, the origins of this term “burnout” are relatively recent, dating back to only 1970; and, originally used to describe this state of being for people in the helping professions (therapists, nurses, doctors, social workers, etc).4 However, the gist of it is the same; when you’re feeling burnt out, it’s typically because of a chronic state of stress and exhaustion. 

Typically, there’s three main categories of symptoms in burnout: exhaustion, detachment/withdrawal from work (or in this case, school) activities, and feelings of negativity, cynicism, or irritability. Exhaustion can look like having low energy, feeling tired all the time, or somatic (physiological) symptoms like headaches or stomach aches. Detachment or withdrawal from work can include feelings of dread about going to work, having a hard time getting started, difficulty concentrating, or beginning to feel numb and detached from your work. Feelings of negativity, cynicism, or irritability can show up as impatience and irritability with coworkers or classmates, feeling cynical about the work you’re doing, feeling negative about the tasks you have to do, or even feeling disillusioned about the work/degree path you’re taking. 3, 45 

So how can you prevent burnout from even happening in the first place while you’re in grad school? The Chicago School lays out 5 tips for preventing burnout: scheduling breaks, establishing a support network, breaking bad habits (such as a bad sleep schedule or not exercising), setting clear boundaries, and practicing mindfulness.6 The Society of Behavioral Medicine advises saying “no” to the culture of overworking, consistently prioritizing your mental and physical health, and engaging in hobbies that give you energy (rather than drain your energy).7 Other strategies include getting regular exercise and maintaining a balanced diet, maintaining good sleep hygiene, and staying connected to your sources of support and social network.8

However, sometimes we don’t realize we’re progressing towards burnout until it’s too late and we’re in the thick of it. The first step to managing burnout when you’re already experiencing it is to recognize the signs  laid out above. Then, once you are able to identify the source of the burnout, identify any immediate changes you can make –asking for help, saying no to taking on additional responsibilities when you can, taking time off, asking your friends/family for additional support, and examining any other options you have.9 

Another step that can help you manage your burnout is by getting organized. Figure out what it is you have to get done, and make a list in order of priority. This can help you to tackle what needs to get done first, taking off some of the pressure you may be feeling. Another important step is to be firm with your boundaries–leave work at work when possible, decline any additional meetings or responsibilities that should not be part of your workload, and take time for yourself even if it feels selfish. Additionally, we recommend seeking professional mental health support if you are able to!9 Mason’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) offers free, short-term counseling as well as other resources for mental health support. 

Graduate Student Life is hosting a workshop with CAPS next semester (Spring 2022), Coping with Burnout as a Grad Student, and you can learn more about this topic by attending the workshop! I’d also like to add that the Mason Grad Insider blog has a variety of blogs regarding mental health and well-being that you might find helpful as well, including but not limited to the following: 

While the end of the semester is often taxing and stressful, we are hopeful that equipping yourself with this knowledge about burnout, how to prevent it, and how to cope with it, will be helpful as you are racing towards the finish line of Fall 2021.

1 https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/burnout

2 https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases

3 https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/burnout

4 https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/burnout

5 https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/burnout/art-20046642

6 https://www.thechicagoschool.edu/insight/psychology/want-to-avoid-grad-school-burnout-try-these-5-tips/

7 https://www.sbm.org/healthy-living/tips-for-beating-burnout-in-graduate-school

8 https://www.healthline.com/health/tips-for-identifying-and-preventing-burnout#prevention

9 https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/burnout-recovery