Everyday Life

Behavioral insights behind Student Burnout

Are you feeling like you are stuck on a treadmill, while your peers are nearing the finish line on a marathon? Are your grades spiralling down alongside your motivation and self-esteem? Does it feel like the only thing getting bigger is the pile of assignments due? Do not panic! You might be a victim of the Burnout Syndrome. And yes, several behavioral biases got you there.

But what exactly is the burnout syndrome?

According to World Health Organization, burnout is a syndrome – not a medical condition – resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Though typically associated to professional workers, data shows that burnout affects students as well. And the toll that burnout takes on a student can be incredibly high. Not only could it lead to worse academic performance, but the sense of failure that stems from unsuccess might be a hidden factor contributing to higher dropout rates. Besides, correlation has been found between burnout, depression, and anxiety, which takes place in a worrying reality of student’s mental health deterioration, as examined by many reports. And the Covid-19 global pandemic has only added fuel to the fire. Thus, making it very important to diagnose and tackle burnout syndrome in time.

How to recognize burnout?

The burnout syndrome is characterized by three dimensions:

  1. feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  2. increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job;
  3. reduced professional efficacy.

The typical symptoms associated to burnout can be reduced to these three main dimensions.

  1. Physical and emotional exhaustion exhibited throughchronic fatigue, insomnia, impaired concentration and attention, increased proneness to illness, physical pain (palpitations, shortness of breath, headaches), anger, irritability, and anxiety. Symptoms of
  2. Detachment and cynicism: characterized by pessimism and negative self-talk, isolation and reduced social interactions, avoidance of tasks and severe loss of feelings of attachment to one’s environment and others.
  3. Ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment seen by a lack of productivity and poor performance often related to procrastination and feelings of hopelessness.

But why some – and not others – experience burnout?

There are both internal and external factors affecting the individual’s propensity to fall victim to burnout. Research shows that the external environment typically associated with burnout is characterized by a heavy workload, instructor attitude and behavior (Cushman and West, 2006), long working hours, role conflict, financial distress (Bennett and Cadaret, 2019), lack of recognition and dysfunctional or insufficient support systems (Jacobs and Dodd, 2003; Karimi et al., 2014). Some of the internal factors associated to burnout are low self-efficacy (Rahmati, 2015), negative temperament – typically neuroticism (Jacobs and Dodd, 2003), lack of personal motivation, mental and physical health (Cushman and West, 2006). But burnout calls in behavioral insights as well. In fact, emotional and cognitive biases often hide behind the process that leads to burnout. Understanding their influence, might be already a good way to avoid it.

What exactly is the role of the emotional and cognitive biases in the burnout process?

Firstly, it is crucial to note that the burnout syndrome is not an immediate onset but, based on Edelwick and Brosky model, a four-stage process described as follows:

  1. Enthusiasm – we feel excessive enthusiasm and have high, idealistic goals. We tend to overestimate our potential and are willing to work tirelessly.
  2. Stagnation – Things are not going how we planned. To compensate, we work and exert ourselves more and more.
  3. Frustration – There is now a mismatch to what we had planned to do and what we perceive that we are achieving.
  4. Apathy – The final stage of burnout characterized by emotional detachment from the roles that we were once passionate about. This is point where you no longer find meaning or fulfillment in your workplace tasks or studies.

When it comes to student burnout, seemingly it all starts with an internalization of the Hustle Culture – yes, the cousin of workaholism. Ever heard of #thanksgoditsmonday? How about «No one ever changed the world on 40 hours a week» or «work so hard that they cannot ignore your success»? If not, good for you! You are probably immune to the notorious conformity bias. Conformity bias is the psychological phenomena for which individuals that are part of a group tend to match attitudes, beliefs and behaviors to group implicit or explicit norms in order to create conformity and avoid negative feelings typically associated to exclusion. Due to this bias, when part of a social environment that credits the “hustle” for any success and creates a sense of shame and guilt around failure, the motivated student works tirelessly. The influence of the Hustle Culture on the person is further enhanced by the complexity bias, a subconscious tendency to overcomplicate things that are simple. But contrary to the “hustle gurus” beliefs, a non-stop working schedule is not a synonymous of productivity but rather leads to negative health effects and inefficiency. It is the optimism bias that brings individuals to overlook such negative effects, because it decreases the probability that they associate to experiencing negative events. On the other hand, inefficiency is a result of multiple behavioral biases. The first of many is the IKEA effect, a cognitive bias that induces individuals to assign a higher value to a product that they created which drives the individuals to not delegate tasks and to do on their own. A second one is the planning fallacy which causes to underestimate the duration that is needed to complete a task and leads to create jam packed schedules. And lastly, inefficiency results from the restraint bias, that is, the overestimation of the personal capacity to resist temptations and impulses.

But what happens when all the effort leads to no results or not to the expected ones? Given the initial expectations and beliefs that strongly link success to effort and time spent working, the student likely incurs in the confirmation bias, that is, he/she attributes the unsuccessful result to lack of effort and commitment confirming the initial belief instead of objectively and correctly assessing the core issue, which sometimes can be a lack of prerequisite knowledge, incorrect study techniques or even external factors outside student’s control. This shift of blame towards the person that has not succeeded is further enforced by the meritocracy paradigm. This paradigm is correctly represented by Obama’s “You can make it if you try”– which means that if you did not succeed, you have not worked hard enough, therefore you lack merit. When people who are deemed successful in society’s standard give their opinion on matters of merit, these opinions are valued greatly – albeit inaccurate. This is due to the authority bias, which is the human tendency to place greater value on authority figure’s opinions. As a result of the confirmation and authority biases, in a “meritocratic” society the students who failed to reach the desired results exert themselves even more and fall within the definition of escalating commitment and plan continuation biases. This means that the students continue with the initial plan – working tirelessly – even though it did not produce the expected results and escalate the commitment increasing their efforts. In fact, this is how the second stage – stagnation – is reached starting from the enthusiasm stage. So now, the student has all the ingredients for an amazing recipe – exhaustion.

As exhaustion starts to take over, typically, the academic performance starts to suffer with increasing intensity. The obvious answer would be to take a break, but often as the performance decreases the students act based on the action bias. The student fails to detect the effects of exhaustion and believes that doing more might adjust the worsening of the academic performance instead of taking a much-needed break. This is the stage of frustration, as the students are unaware of the true reasons behind their results, they keep putting in place dysfunctional coping mechanisms that worsen the situation even more. Moreover, as stress becomes chronic and relentless work a habit the two combined create a new status quo. The status quo bias is an emotional bias that induces the individual to preserve the current status quo even when rationally a change is needed. This is the case of a student who is experiencing the first signs of burnout and chronic stress without turning the situation around or asking for help. The status quo bias is strictly related to loss aversion. The student who believes that backing off from the books and assignments will automatically translate into failure, will adopt mechanisms that avoid the negative outcome – unfortunately, under chronic stress this behavior increases the chances of a negative performance. An initially motivated person who sees themselves constantly falling short to their expectations has high chances of incurring in the negativity bias. This means that the events of a more negative nature will have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than neutral or positive ones of the same intensity. Studies link this bias to anxiety and depression because it increases the reactivity to negative emotions. In addition, the spotlight effect might increase the student’s perception that others notice their “failures” and lead to decrease in self-esteem. Besides, the student’s negative outlook can be reinforced by the attentional bias. Attentional bias refers to how a person’s perception is affected by their recurring thoughts or emotional state. This is the bias that makes the junk food aisle so appetizing when you are hungry and the world a series of unfortunate events just because you are sad. In other words, the attention is skewed in favor of whatever is already on your mind. As a matter of fact, the increase in anxiety and negative emotions is often the reason why the student adopts dysfunctional coping mechanisms based on avoidance. It is a form of self-defense against more negative emotions and feelings of failure, but unfortunately, avoidance mechanisms like procrastination lead to a worsening of the situation.

In the end, by spiraling into negativity and failure the student throws the towel down. Apathy is the last stage of burnout. It is a complete emotional detachment from one’s job/studies – the ultimate defensive mechanism for someone affected by burnout. The initial dreams and goals lose their meaning, and the students are more likely to give up on their studies.

Burnout leaves behind feet-dragging student zombies. But this does not have to be an apocalypse. Schools and universities can find the cure.  The solutions could be rethinking the educational environment, improving student counseling services or exploiting very simple, yet effective, behavioral tools. Many universities have started using nudges to keep students on track, noticing positive results. For example, a 2017 study found that colleges using customized text messages saw a 6% increase in degree completion among students most at risk of dropping out. But to be effective, the nudge must be precisely designed (see more in our article “Too good to be true?”) otherwise it could backfire. And when it comes to burnout, more fire is certainly not a good idea. But as we wait for the world to change, remember that you have control over what you write on that to-do list. Because let’s be honest, when the world shut down to fight the new pandemic, did you really miss the sleepless nights before exams?

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