Recommendations for Dealing with Mid-Semester Burnout

If you were on campus in spring 2020, you undoubtedly remember that last weekend in March before students were sent home. It is hard to capture, except in scattered images — frantically rushing past familiar faces in King Building, watching a student cry on their friend’s shoulder in Wilder Main, reflecting the fear in another’s eyes as they slowly looked up from their phone screen. How intensely familiar I became with my own heartbeat.

Yet in the center of that maelstrom of panic, I experienced something new. A lightness, an unshackling from obligation or expectation. For the first time in god knows how many years, I had no idea what the next day would entail. Just a few days earlier, I’d had my whole semester planned out. That weekend, the fencing team was going to host our first home tournament of the semester. We’d gotten ambitious and wanted to double our home tournaments, increase our profits, and start taking some teams varsity. And then, in one email, that dream was gone. Although I grieved for what could have been, I soon felt unexpectedly freed by this newfound uncertainty. The future was truly unknown, and I found that as liberating as it was terrifying.

When I arrived home, I reflected on why that was. After all, if losing opportunities I had chased for so long left me feeling better off, then clearly I was doing something wrong. It is the habit of many Oberlin students to take on countless projects, to pursue every one of our interests. It is our overwork culture, of which I am a top-tier culprit. Since arriving at Oberlin, I have steadily ramped up my commitments. It began when I assumed the role of vice president of the fencing team by the end of my first semester, and continuously took on more until I grew into a burned out third-year juggling a perpetually overloaded course schedule and more extracurriculars than I can keep track of. It is the definition of unhealthy. As the Student Senate Co-Chair of the Disability Equity and Mental Health working group, it is also rather ironic.

In my work on Senate, I’ve gotten a pretty good look at the mental health situation at Oberlin. I’ve heard from health professionals on what constitutes burnout, and how a break from work is the best way to counteract burnout. Burnout is also a scale, not a binary. Second and third-years, myself included, are sliding down that scale in a dangerous direction. With minimal breaks, we’re about to head into another semester. However, I see this burnout all around me — in the bags under the eyes of nearly every Senator at our last plenary, in my professors who struggle to keep up with grading, in Zoom meetings with administrators who have barely had a day off since this pandemic began. Somehow, even though everything is so much harder, we’re doing so much less to take care of ourselves.

I, of course, have recommendations:

To students — drop what you can. For the first time in my college career, I’m planning on cutting back on work over the summer. My goal is to reclaim as many hours as possible and leave them unfilled. We’re not going to get a formal break, so we have to make the time on our own. 

To faculty — consider working a mental health day or short break into your syllabi. This could simply be a day with no class, an asynchronous learning day with no class time, or an activity focused on wellness. I don’t want to give too much instruction here, since each class is different, and it is ultimately the professor’s call. Just think about what might be fun or stress-relieving, both for yourself and for your students. If you’re interested in trying, but aren’t sure what to do, ask your students. On our end, Senate is working to create workshops around mental health in the classroom, which we’ll introduce at next week’s General Faculty meeting.

To administrators — for this year, I think the ship has sailed regarding mid-semester and between-semester breaks, the most important consideration for the collective mental health of all of us at Oberlin. The three-semester plan could easily have incorporated more breaks, and it was ultimately a mistake that it didn’t. That said, I don’t want to be overly critical. I am glad the College is considering more breaks in the next academic year, and there is only so much you can get right during a pandemic. However, my deepest desire as a student and as a Senator is for someone in the administration to actively advocate for student mental health. Should we ever face another situation like this one, I want someone in the decision-making room to ask what the mental health ramifications will be. Maybe then the widespread burnout we’re currently experiencing can be lessened.

As we turn the corner in this pandemic, with students, faculty, and staff finally getting vaccinated, you can taste the budding hope. Even the weather is optimistic. Just last week it was snowing, and now it’s positively balmy. Students are lying in the grass and doing their work, instead of huddling in their rooms. Some of the bolder ones are sunbathing.

Yet I don’t want to jump to conclusions about the upcoming semester and mistake good weather and vaccinations for improving mental health. It is not easy to shift a culture, but there are concrete steps that we can all take to make Oberlin a place that values mental health and self-care over relentless, gratuitous labor. We have proven that we’re capable of transformational change and, with the utmost care not to jinx it, it is starting to look like we’ve conquered one health crisis. It is time to tackle the next.