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How Online Students Can Beat Burnout

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Q&A with American Public University Professor John Moore

Adult students face many demands as they combine school, work and family. Students can become overly stressed, or “burned out,” if the challenges become overwhelming. John Moore, Ph.D., professor of health sciences at the online American Public University System, answers questions about the warning signs of burnout — and offers strategies for success on all fronts.

What does it mean to be “burned out?”

Burnout describes a condition where a person, an online student in this case, is dealing with the emotional effects of prolonged and repeated exposure to stressors. These stressors are connected to tasks, functions or roles associated work, school, family, or all three. Burnout manifests by way of emotional exhaustion, indifferent responses toward others, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment.

Think of burnout in terms of a delicate bubble, which I call a “burnout bubble.” Within each person’s unique bubble, there are interpersonal forces that act as inflationary agents. These agents can cause the bubble to expand over time. Inflationary agents can include job, family, school and other responsibilities. Other life stressors can include personal economic challenges and even medical problems.

Professor John Moore's Burnout Bubble
Professor John Moore’s Burnout Bubble

What kind of student is most likely to get burned out?

I have been teaching online for eight years. My own experience shows that students can burnout when they take on too many life roles and tasks at once. They become a “task master.”

An example might be a learner who takes two complex courses while also working full time.  Add in other life responsibilities, such as being a parent, spouse and so forth, and you can quickly see how burnout can occur. In effect, the bubble bursts.

I see this phenomenon with newer students, who mistakenly believe they can “do it all.” The student becomes overwhelmed, fatigued and ultimately, burned out. More experienced students are also vulnerable as they may take more classes toward the end of their degree program. The reality is that burnout can happen to any student who takes on too much, too fast.

What are the warning signs?

I think of burnout whenever I hear a student say something like, “I’m completely over it,” when talking about schoolwork. Warning signs include feeling:

  • Overwhelmed
  • Powerless
  • Unusually irritable
  • Fatigued or exhausted
  • Detached from assignments or tasks

Burnout can mirror other conditions, such as a medical problem or mental health issue. Conversely, these conditions can worsen burnout.

Can a person function when they are burned out?

Burnout can have a huge impact on an online student’s ability to do well. It can be a barrier to higher grades or even degree completion. This is particularly true if the student becomes unmotivated to complete assignments or do their best.

However, given our culture’s premium on productivity, many people do function while in a state of burnout. Their level of success is subjective, though, and hinges on who is defining success. Success in one area may cause failure in another.

How can someone cope with burnout?

Let’s go back to the burnout bubble concept. The first goal is to prevent the bubble’s expansion. Once burnout sets in, it can be difficult to contain. If a student is already experiencing burnout, the goal should be bubble deflation. Deflation allows for a gradual process whereby the student feels empowered and in control.

Here’s how you can help prevent or cope with burnout:

  • Honestly assess life roles and tasks. “Be real” about what is going on in your life.
  • Dial back on the number of complex classes taken at once. For example, take one complex class, like a research class, and another that’s less involved. This creates balance.
  • Set clear boundaries between school, work and home. Use a day calendar to help make these boundaries concrete. Schedule school activities for certain times. Then, stick to the schedule.
  • Lean into the self-discipline that you inherently possess as an online student. Use today’s tools to become more organized, such as online calendars, an iPhone, Blackberry, etc.
  • Gain the support of family and friends. Let them know what you are feeling. Be open to feedback, as they know you best.
  • Reach out to your professors and academic advisor. They can offer guidance and insight.
  • Schedule time to relax and unwind each day. Give yourself permission to do nothing but watch television, listen to music, spend time with family and so forth.
  • Discover the power of the word “no.” You become empowered when you say no to multiple classes and no to more responsibilities. Paradoxically, this is really saying “yes” to health, wellness and productivity.

I also urge everyone to get regular medical checkups to rule out physical causes. Make sure burnout is not tied to medical problems.

Adult learners have tremendous opportunities these days, thanks to online universities. Maintain a healthy balance and you can achieve your lifelong dream of earning a degree.

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