Foto uit de voorstelling Time Out over studenten en burn-out die op 30 november in Utrecht te zien is

Burnout expert:  there is a problem, but we’re tough


Students are exhausted, PhD candidates are stressed. The mental health problems seem to be getting worse and worse, as evidenced by DUB’s reporting. But professor of work and organizational psychology Wilmar Schaufeli doesn’t want to hear about a burnout epidemic. Still, he too sees young people at the university pushing themselves to the limit.

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Student association LSVb recently faced harsh criticism about the way they conducted a study about mental health problems among students. Still, city council party Student & Starter chose to use the results as a starting point for a proposal for a Utrecht Delta plan, to be used to counter burnouts among students.

Utrecht’s burnout expert Wilmar Schaufeli doesn’t want to spend too much time talking about the messy LSVb report, or Student & Starter’s proposal. “If you’re using a study like that to base a plan on, you’re making yourself very vulnerable.”

At the same time, Schaufeli says awareness of burnouts and overexertion is important. The university has the responsibility to ensure an environment in which students and staff can function ‘optimally and sustainably’. “But let’s keep looking at this in a scientific way. Right now, high percentages are being thrown around based on shoddy questionnaires and criteria. That’s not right. If you really have a burnout, you’re dealing with a severe, long-term problem, that will take you more than two years to get over.”

Still, we’re hearing a lot about burnout symptoms, not just at the university but in other industries, as well. Sometimes it seems as though it’s a national epidemic. Is it true more people have had burnouts in the past few years?
“No. If you look at the results of the National Work Survey conducted by TNO and the CBS, you’ll find that the percentage of respondents who are dealing with burnout symptoms has been around 10 percent for a longer period. In the last few years, this number has seen a slight increase to 12 to 13 percent. That increase, by the way, does not run parallel to the start of the 2008 economic crisis, as many think. It started at a later date, around 2010. It is true that mostly young people state they’re experience burnout symptoms.”

So it’s possible there’s an increase, specifically among students and PhD candidates?
“Oddly, we can’t be sure. Great studies have been conducted, for instance among Veterinary Medicine students, that seem to arrive at that conclusion. But we don’t know for certain. Perhaps there are differences between study programs or disciplines? Between bachelor’s students and master’s students? Between men and women? A lot more research is required.

“Right now there are a lot of hypotheses. It’s possible that the young students of today mostly grew up in a sheltered, overprotective environment, without many setbacks. Then, by the time you start your studies and start living on your own, things may feel like they’re suddenly getting a lot harder. So perhaps people are less resilient than they used to be.

Perhaps people are less resilient than they used to be

“It’s also possible that the demands students and PhD candidates have to meet are getting tougher. This may refer to demands made by educational institutions or employers, but also internal demands: the well-known idea of young people who not only want to excel in their studies, but also want to have a large group of friends, and join in on many social activities and sports. Again, however: this is all just speculation.”

When do you get the diagnosis ‘burnout’?
Occupational physicians and psychologists use a set of guidelines to determine the diagnosis. You need to have extensive exhaustion symptoms, bad enough that you’re unable to fulfill your social obligations like work or study. Then, the symptoms have to persist for a longer period of time, at least three to six months.

This is a state of mental exhaustion, with many subsequent complains, such as issues with concentration and attention. When you define it this way, not a lot of people will get that diagnosis. Our own research shows that a maximum of 4 to 7 percent of Dutch working population experiences burnout symptoms at a level high enough that they should really be visiting their physicians.”

In what situations does the risk of getting a burnout increase for students and PhD candidates?
“A lot depends on how much control you’re able to exert over your activities: are you able to decide for yourself how to do your job? It’s also important to have enough support, feedback and advice, and you need enough potential to grow and develop yourself. Those are all sources of energy which can counter a burnout.

You can also get a burnout without having a high workload

“High workloads are also a risk factor. The interesting thing is, however, that professors and associate professors experience the highest workloads of all university employees, but it doesn’t cause them as many problems, because they can compensate the high workload with sources of energy: they have the prestige, they earn more money, they have power and more control over their work.

“Then vice versa, PhD candidates with a relatively low workload can still get burnout symptoms, for instance because they’re unsure about the criteria are that they have to meet. Or because their futures are very uncertain. They can also experience feelings of abandonment, being left alone with their project, without sufficient support from their supervisors.”

Don’t students have a lot of control over their own choices?
“That’s debatable. They’re also stuck in figurative straitjackets. The study programs are organized fairly strictly these days. Aside from that, most students in the Netherlands need a job to be able to pay for their studies and groceries, juggling part-time studies with part-time jobs. That’s often hard to combine successfully.”

Are there personality traits that increase the risk?
“Yes, a lot of research has been done about that. Especially people who aren’t emotionally stable, doubt themselves a lot, and don’t have a lot of confidence in their own abilities, are at risk, as well as perfectionists.”

The academic context is exactly the environment where those personality traits are important

“If you look at the university, that’s exactly the kind of environment where you need to be rather tough. Your work is constantly evaluated, and you need to show confidence when you’re presenting. You need to be incredibly precise in your work; it’s science after all. All in all, the academic context is exactly the environment where those personality traits that increase the risk of burnout are important.”

What can you do to prevent it?
“First of all, you need to be self-aware enough to realize when things aren’t going well, which for many people is quite tricky. You need to acknowledge that something’s not working, and that may give you a feeling of weakness. You need to recover well, and find a balance between exertion and relaxation. And you need to find your own sources of energy. That means you’ll need to organize your life and work in a way that gives you enough support. Don’t think: people will take care of me. The worst thing about all this is that things will get even harder when you’re getting more and more tired. And when you’ve got a burnout, you won’t be able to accomplish any of it.”

Are there differences between men and women?
“Generally speaking, the results of the studies don’t show any differences. One of the burnout symptoms is mental distance, a cynical stance in regards to your work. That’s something we see in men more than in women. But apparently women score higher in this in studies about burnouts among scientific staff. And then it’s back to guesswork: maybe it’s the classic added stress of juggling work and family. Maybe it’s not really a gender-related difference, but a difference in hierarchical positions within an organization. You always have to distinguish these things carefully.”

Does the university have a responsibility?
“Yes. But I think they’re doing quite well. We have student psychologists who can recognize these issues. We have company physicians and ARBO (health service organizations) for PhD candidates and employees. People shouldn't hesitate so much to use these services, but they are there.”

PhD candidates say they want to talk to a psychologist who’s familiar with their specific issues…
“I’m not sure that’s necessary. The PhD candidates’ positions aren’t all that specific or complicated. Besides, psychologists and physicians all have an academic background themselves. They’d sooner have a problem trying to understand people who’ve had little education, or immigrants.”

Should PhD candidates all take a course in mindfulness?
“You should be able to expect a large employer like the UU to offer supporting activities to its staff. Aside from courses on career counseling or time management, that could include a course on mindfulness, too. Mindfulness, like physical exercise, has been scientifically proven to be beneficial to those trying to deal with stress. Of course you should distinguish between that and nonsensical things like intercranial or reincarnation therapy, and of course there are limits to what an employer can do in this aspect.”

What should PhD candidates be able to expect from their supervisors?
“A supervisor acts as a counselor and career coach to PhD candidates. He or she shouldn’t only have eyes for the product a PhD candidates delivers, but also pay attention to the process they go through. If a supervisor notices that someone’s not doing all right, they should initiate conversations about the PhD candidate’s mental wellbeing. If they can’t reach a solution together, they can refer the candidate to an occupational physician or psychologist. It’s important that a supervisor notices someone’s wellbeing and actively does something with what they see.”

And what can a student expect from a teacher?          
“That’s more difficult. As a teacher you don’t necessarily have a close relationship with a student – or perhaps only at the end of someone’s studies. A student’s wellbeing isn’t your primary responsibility. If you notice a student experiencing problems that interfere with their studies, then of course you talk about that. But starting out by mentioning ten tips to prevent a burnout… that’s seems rather patronizing.”

And things aren’t all that bad yet?
“Well, let me put it this way: the issues have existed for dozens of years and we do need to do something about improving on them. But you can also choose to look at it optimistically. The percentage of people with a burnout is still almost the same, while our production and the intensity we work with has increased. We’re simply working harder. Research shows the same. Apparently, people are tough.”


University council addresses the issue of stress among students and PhD candidates

The university council will organize two meetings in the near future around the theme of stress. On November 30, there’s an interactive theater show called Time Out. Students in the council, in cooperation with theater group Podium T, want to create awareness of stress and burnouts, to create an atmosphere where people can talk more openly about it. How can you recognize a burnout, how can you prevent it, and how can you deal with it?

In January, there’ll be an afternoon on stress and burnouts among PhD candidates. The meeting is organized by the university council in collaboration with PhD platform Prout. The exact date and location are to be announced.

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