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Supporting young people to avoid burnout

October 21, 2021  |  by Callan Kelly

Stress is something which at the correct level, can be highly motivational and is necessary for us to achieve. However, issues can arise when stress levels and workload are consistently high. This can create mental, physical and emotional exhaustion known as burnout.

A recent study by the National Education Union found that as many as 82% of teachers felt that exams were responsible for having the biggest impact on students’ mental health.

When stress levels increase and remain high, we can begin to see issues such as a disinterest in schoolwork, low self-esteem, anxiety, under achievement and a sense of inadequacy. These may not be obvious at first, as many young people will continue to do well at the things they work hard to do. But they may not be able to take enough time to rest, recognise achievements and feel the sense of accomplishment that comes from this. Instead, the high workload means they must immediately focus on the next thing, and this begins to feel like an endless mountain of work that never gets smaller.

Sometimes as busy adults, we lose sight of what a young person’s day can look like for them.

Consider this:

A 14 year old, year 10 student wakes up at 7 am, and after getting their things together for school, remembering what books they need and what homework is due, getting washed and making breakfast, they leave the house around 8.

Tutorial starts at 9 am but there are some boys in the tutor group that make this young person feel uncomfortable, so she must spend the first half hour of the day worrying about them whilst also trying to be engaged in the discussion within the tutor group. This is how this young person begins every day.

There are 6 classes to attend each day, but this young person must also spend 1-to-1 time with a maths teacher, twice a week, to ensure that they are keeping up with the class. With the busy workload and demands on teachers, it can be difficult for them to provide specific support that a student may require, and so the child must try to advocate for themselves repeatedly during the day.

At lunch there is a study group for her French GCSE class and so she only has time for a quick snack and 10 minutes outside before she goes back to lessons.

After school this young person spends a couple of hours at swimming club or band practice, although she really enjoys these and excels at them, by the time she gets home it’s after 6 pm.

Once she’s eaten dinner there are at least 1 or 2 hours’ of homework to complete, often for the next day, and it isn’t until 9 o’clock that she manages to complete these as sometimes it can take her a little longer than her peers.

It’s reasonable to suggest that this would be a lot for any adult to manage, let alone a 14-year-old who is still trying to learn the skills required to manage a schedule and pressures like that. There are also a myriad of social pressures and issues to navigate both in and out of school.

By the weekend, this young person is completely exhausted. They have little energy and little emotional capacity with which to deal with any issues that may arise. She cries or shouts about seemingly insignificant things, arguments are frequent when parents ask her to complete small tasks, as she feels she has given all she can during the week. On Monday, a new week starts with the same schedule, stresses and frustration are repeated.

She may be able to push through this for quite some time, but eventually, the signs of burnout will begin to appear. She procrastinates and stalls when it’s time to study, she doesn’t have any energy so doesn’t see her friends, swimming and band are no longer enjoyable, just another drain on her already depleted energy reserves, attendance at school begins to drop as she becomes anxious about work and judgement from teachers as well as peers.

Hopefully, this sets the scene for what life is like for a vast number of high school students.

So, what can we do to assist young people in effectively managing stress and workload?

  • Many parents will ask their child about their day when they get home, but often get a very generic response. Sometimes sharing just one thing from your own day, good or bad (within reason) can help show your child that it is ok to express things they find hard, and that you yourself can sometimes feel stressed by work.
  • Model healthy coping strategies and outlets: Physical exercise, open discussion about any issues they may be experiencing, self-care and down time are all key to our wellbeing.
  • Advocate for your child: Encourage them to try and ask teachers for what they need, but if they are unable to do this or the need is not met, speak to their tutor or their teachers to try and ensure that they are supported. Support and motivation from teachers are important protective factors against burnout.
  • Access Support: If your child is concerned about academic stress, there are a number of options available for support within school or online.
    • Isle ListenWe offer a confidential 1-to-1 listening service in all secondary schools on the island, where one of our Wellbeing Practitioners helps students to manage their own mental health in a safe space. A higher level of support is also available for issues identified that are considered more complex and in need of more specialist support. To access our Listening Service please ask a member of school staff.
    • Youth Listening Service – The Youth listening service is available in all secondary schools and offers an opportunity for students on an individual or group basis to meet and explore issues that may be causing them some distress. You can access this service by speaking to a member of school staff.
    • Kooth Kooth is a free, safe and anonymous online wellbeing advice, support and counselling service specifically designed for young people.

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