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Student Burnout

Introduction: Significance of academic burnout in Hong Kong

Hong Kong places a great deal of value on its education system and is renowned for its technological know-how and advancements. Students across Hong Kong dedicate their school careers to achieving incredibly high and difficult standards, so it’s not surprising to read studies that Hong Kong students are much more stressed academically compared to students in other countries.

As secondary school students ourselves, we witnessed the terrible “do-or-die” mindset that many of our friends face when pushing their limits to achieve the best. Due to economic and cultural factors resulting in a rigid education system and strict learning policies, academic stress is prevalent among Hong Kong students, particularly undergraduate students, who are often plagued with depression and anxiety based on the drastic intellectual changes that they are mandated to keep track of.

What is burnout?

First raised by German-born American psychologist Herbert J Freudenberger, he characterised ‘burn-out’ in his original article ‘sindrome de burnout’ & ‘Burnout: the high cost of high achievement’ in 1974 and 1980 as ‘becoming exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources.

To further extend, modern psychology has developed the phrase ‘burnout’ from Freudenberger’s belief of work burnout in offices to students studying and learning as well. Psychologists believe it is a psychological state generated under learning pressure, mostly refers to the state of physical and mental exhaustion experienced by individual students because they cannot effectively relieve learning pressure or properly cope with setbacks in learning, and have a series of negative or evasive attitudes towards learning.

Freudenberger’s work involves treatments to stress and chronic fatigue, his contributions to the realisation of burnout are significant as psychologists are researching this topic in a wider scope.

Symptoms of burnout

The three main areas of symptoms that are often considered to be signs of burnout are:

  1. Exhaustion: people affected with burnout will often feel drained and emotionally exhausted, tired, unable to cope with situations and don’t have enough energy. This may also lead to physical symptoms like pain and gastrointestinal problems as people do not take care of themselves, resulting in exhaustion.

  2. Alienation from work-related activities: people with burnout may find work stressful and frustrating. They might even distance themselves both physically and emotionally, making them feel numb and weak about their work and study/

  3. Reduced performance: burnout mainly affects everyday tasks, resulting in very negative views about their tasks and finding it hard to concentrate.

Causes of burnout

  1. Unrealistic academic workload with limited time

  • when students are tasked with huge academic workloads and limited time for completion, implications often include heavy discouragement & demoralisation

  1. Ineffective studying system

  • Students often mistake studying for memorisation instead of understanding. The trade-off for blindly memorising is the amount of effort and time needed to force the brain into remembering it. The brain works most efficiently by repetitions, making connections between concepts, with meanings, sound and visuals. If students aren’t able to realise the lack of efficiency earlier or remain stubborn / not open to change, they might experience burnout.

  1. high expectations of society (stigma)

  • High academic standards set by students themselves, parents, government and society suggest that students are to excel in academics and channel more than half of their private time into working on projects, assignments and revision

  • This workload continues to accumulate and build up, especially when students try to enjoy some task to relax - in other words, this is simply telling students that they do not have room for error or procrastination!

  • Students deal with a lot in their youth - they begin to experience the need to meet up with the expectations of their parents, teachers, peer group, and society at large. While these factors are necessary to keep a teen focused and motivated, it has been proven that self / internal motivation is the best encouragement to uplift the youth.

  1. Lack of control

  • Students in Hong Kong often have tutoring after school and on weekends. These are sometimes set by parents and have strict class timings, meaning there is a lack of control of students to manage their time to study and take breaks.

  • Not only will this hurt their mental health, but it will also affect their moods and their temper towards loved ones as they may feel devalued or controlled over.

  1. fear of failure

  • fear of failure and disappointment is a major contributor to anxiety in both public and private schools, and is the driving force for why students

  • According to Gustafssonet al. (2016), emotional and cognitive depreciation aimed at negative consequences that accompany making mistakes increases the occurrence of both emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation.

  • In short, burnout was shown through the emergence of fear of failure!

  1. Lack of self-care

  • Sometimes students aren’t able to make time for themselves. This includes the prioritisation of studying for long periods of time and without a break between studying to appreciate their own work. The lack of self-motivation and self-care are detrimental to long-term success.

  1. Motivation / insufficient reward

  • Animals have natural instincts of working for a reward, often for survival values. We humans aren’t born to work or study so there must be a motivation that keeps us ‘fueled’ to continue. Rewards and motivation such as studying with people who you work well with or can motivate each other is a way to walk through hard times together.

What is the difference between burnout, exhaustion and depression?

Experts do not always agree on what burnout exactly means. This is due to the fact that burnout isn’t exactly clear and diagnosed.

Exhaustion in short is a normal reaction to stress. We feel exhausted when being under extreme pressure or when we have extreme commitment to a certain task. Exhaustion is a symptom of burnout, meaning you would experience exhaustion as part of burnout. Other parts of burnout may include a negative cycle of thoughts, which overlaps with the diagnosis of depression.

In fact, depression and burnout are so similar that they are sometimes mistakenly diagnosed with another. They both share the symptoms of extreme exhaustion, feeling down and reduced performances.

What is the difference between burnout, exhaustion and depression?

Burnout can also be explained by cognitive theory which explains depression, such as Beck’s cognitive triad, where sufferers fall into the negative view cycle of themselves, the world and future; and Ellis’s ABC model, which suggests the negative thought created is due to an activating event, in addition to irrational beliefs that results in the depressive consequence. The distinct difference here is that depression is more based on life and burnout is specific to work-related: burnout can fall into depression and may increase the risk of someone getting depression.

**Attention! Please do not self-diagnose yourself as having depression / burnout too quickly. For example, advising someone with burnout to take a vacation or time off work may help them recover, but for people with depression they might need a different treatment - one must find their source of the problem to help themselves.

Managing academic stress & burnout

Burnout is not something that can be recovered rapidly. The stressful tension on oneself could have accumulated for years, which means the damage to mental health may be cavernous. Learning how to heal yourself just by being understanding and caring for yourself is vital as you are able to prioritise yourself over other work.

  1. learning how to be selective: it’s okay to say no!

  • remember to prioritise yourself and your mental health first.

  • developing a learning style that’s right for you!

  • plan your schedule ahead of time

What does burnout look like?

  • Sometimes burnout will appear as helplessness such as the most common thought ‘no matter how hard I work, I can’t keep up.’ Other sign of burnout includes the negative thoughts on daily life, wanting to quit, experiencing physical symptoms such as migraine and shortness of breath which exaggerates the negative mood

  • Of course, burnout is just like any other mental health illness- symptoms are individual dependent, meaning everyone can experience different stress factors that lead to their symptoms. No matter how significant it is, it is a sign for yourself to realise… enough is enough.

Personal experiences


Sometimes there is an immense amount of work that has to be done in a short period of time. The severity of struggles that students face at all levels isn’t comprehensible to others because we all have our definitions and range of stress. However, we can all work together, with each other. The support between friends and close ones is immeasurably important, walking to school together in the morning to freshen up the day, working together in the study room to maximise concentration and increase motivation, checking in with friends and families and at night, just to name a few. During tough times, no one is alone!



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