Students have now made it through midterms, and are already looking towards finals and the end of the semester. In my own experience as an advisor, this is when many students are prone to burning out. Many have been in their positions for three to six months. The euphoria of being a student leader has begun to wear off, and in many cases, they are approaching or are already in the storming phase outlined in Tuckman’s stages of team formation. This can be a challenging time for students, and a challenging time for advisors as we work with our students to navigate this period while also continuing to keep them focused on their goals.
According to Freudenberger, burnout is “The state of fatigue and frustration arising from unrealistic, excessive demands on personal resources and leading to physical and mental exhaustion.” For many students, the burn out is a result of a “yes I can, yes I will” mentality where they feel a need to take on more than they might be able to. At Texas A&M University, this is not uncommon amongst our student leaders, and is a regular topic of conversation I have with other student organization advisors. So what causes this and how do we help our students move past it?
I frequently have conversations with professionals at other institutions that want to know the secret, how does Texas A&M University get such high caliber students to take on leadership responsibilities with minimal compensation? In my time as a student, and now a professional, I have yet to find the secret to this. Part of it is the culture at Texas A&M, where Aggies help Aggies. Where selfless service is a core value of the institution. The challenge for advisors, is understanding how we help our students understand when to serve others, and when to focus on their own needs. From my observations, the dissonance created by this challenge is one of the leading causes of student leader burnout.
Other causes of burnout include role conflict or role overload, where students struggle to understand their role, leading to stress. This is often seen in students entering new roles, where they are still seeking to understand what to do or what to expect from their new positions. Another cause can be when students place unrealistic expectations on themselves, and then become exhausted when they are unable to meet these expectations at the level they want, or perceive others want. Students might also experience burnout as a result of continued, stressful events. For some student groups, they regularly have events, requiring continuous planning and coordination. This repetitive stress can build up and lead to burnout of our student leaders. The last cause, and probably one I see most frequently in my role is students become overwhelmed that they lose their sense of purpose in all that they do. They become disoriented, and the challenge of refocusing becomes overwhelming, leading them to stress even more. In the end, the stress is exhausting and leaves them unable to perform in multiple areas of their life.
So what can we do as advisors to help our students when they begin to burnout? I have had a number of experiences where my entire staff was stressed, frustrated, and burnt out. As the advisor, I was the only one in the room that could see what was taking place. One of the greatest tools I have had in these moments is helping students “return to center.” In yoga, after different movements, an individual “returns to center.” This is their starting point, their resting point, it is more or less the place where one feels balanced. By helping students return to center, you help them refocus on what matters most. From an organization standpoint, this might mean asking them to reflect on why they applied for the position they are in? Why did they join the organization in the first place? Another great tool is to work with chief student leaders to help them share why they selected others for the positions they did. This often times helps leaders understand their role in the overall organization vision, the value they bring to that role, and the expectations others have of them.
This can also be a valuable time to help student leaders revisit their organization’s mission, vision, and values. I frequently speak with advisors and student leaders that feel overwhelmed with how much they have going on in their organization. This is a great opportunity to look at what the organization is doing, evaluate if it aligns or supports the organization’s overall mission, vision, and values. If it does not directly tie in, the organization might consider eliminating the event, postponing it to a time when more resources can be dedicated to it, or consider reducing the complexity of the event to reduce demand on student leaders.
In the end, there is no one size fits all approach to helping students and student leadership teams coping with burnout. Each student leader needs different things, but as an advisor you have the opportunity to help them recognize burnout, and provide them tools to cope with it. This post shares some practices that have helped me, but speak with colleagues and do your own research to find what is best for your students. Everything shared here today can also apply to our role as advisors and professionals. Despite more experience than our students in life, we are still susceptible to burnout. I have used the tools and conversations presented here today with colleagues and in my own life with great success.
If you are interested more in learning about burnout, please watch for an upcoming Compassion Fatigue and Burnout training module in the StuAct Online Training Center in the near future. You can also request a presentation by a staff member from the Department of Student Activities on this topic by filling out the Organizational Development Workshop & Consultation Request Form at http://studentactivities.tamu.edu/manage-your-organization/training-opportunities/ or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrew Carruth ’04