Thrive on Campus//

How Burnout Affects Students at Stanford

Extreme pressure and a culture of overwork contribute to an unhealthy culture. It’s time for the school to examine it.

Courtesy of MintImages/Shutterstock
Courtesy of MintImages/Shutterstock

Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

There’s an old adage about university: You juggle a trio of work, sleep and social life, but you’re only allowed to pick two. After three years at Stanford, I have to say it can be alarmingly accurate at times. Burnout on college campuses is real and pervasive. I’ve seen and experienced it firsthand. Students are completely overworked, overcommitted, and stuck in a cycle of stress and exhaustion. 

Last year I wrote an article detailing the lack of mental health resources available to students at Stanford and the danger that presented to the student body. Sadly, it seems not much has changed over the past year as students are still suffering, and even worse, there have been a number of suicides, most notably the world-champion cyclist Kelly Catlin, who was denied access to the Stanford sports psychologist because she was not technically a varsity athlete. It is demoralising and outrageous that there still does not seem to be enough help for those who need it. Yet the arguably greater issue of mental health at Stanford is not its lack of resources, but more its pernicious culture of achievement at almost all costs. 

Stanford students are constantly under a ferocious amount of stress due to their workload. To blame all of this on the university itself is admittedly unfair, as students do pick their own classes, but the issue is that Stanford is structured in such a way that students are often forced to take on an extreme amount of work in order to progress. Even when they have the option to do less, students often opt to take on more for fear of being seen as not doing enough, as our school encourages students to do as much as possible in order to make themselves more attractive to future employers. The university is certainly all too aware of this culture of overwork and yet does surprisingly little to dispel it. If employees at a company were to compete with each other over who got less sleep, then you would understandably be concerned about the quality of life at that particular office. Yet at Stanford this sort of thinking is par for the course, which is why the 24-hour study space on campus is rarely empty. 

How does it come to this? What happens to people to cause them to sacrifice all in the name of work? There is no easy answer, no quick culprit that I can say is responsible for all the students’ woes. Of course Stanford is a lot of work, it is one of the best universities in the world, and its students should work hard. But only up to a certain point. After a while, the sheer amount of work becomes just too much, and any enjoyment that can be gained from learning and engaging in interesting topics is completely overshadowed by the ever-looming presence of final exams and grades. 

This anxiety is especially pressing at Stanford in particular, because unlike other universities, Stanford runs on a quarter system. This means students attend three 10-week terms, with a fourth optional one over the summer. It also means more exams than with a semester system, and an entire course load squeezed into 10 weeks instead of 15. And because Stanford is so fast-paced, any break or any time away feels extraordinarily detrimental to your progress. Even just one weekend away, traveling with a student club or trying to de-stress with family, can set you back immensely as you have then missed out on prime work time. Weekends at Stanford are the single best time to work, and if you miss out on that time, you have to catch up with last week’s homework during the week while also trying to do this week’s (which you are not prepared for, since you couldn’t do last week’s). All of this concentrates to mean that work-life balance doesn’t exist at Stanford, at least not that I’ve witnessed. And the students suffer the consequences.

I wish I could say I’ve found a way to rise above all of this, but I haven’t. I have succumbed to this culture of overwork and stress and burnout at Stanford, and seen some of my closest friends become completely exhausted and sick — but still feel like they have to keep working. Other friends, I simply haven’t seen at all because they have shut themselves away in order to have any chance of managing their workload. I know more than one person who has had to take an official leave of absence, missing an entire quarter of school, purely because they were so overwhelmed by the stress of work and the pressure of needing to succeed that they were scared they wouldn’t be able to continue if they were to stay on campus in that environment. I personally have experienced more than one occasion where I’ve felt completely unable to work because I had been operating at such a ridiculous level for so long that I was unable to function properly. People might claim that this stress is due to a lack of time-management skills, and while that may be a part of it, but ignoring the other factors that contribute to it misses a dangerous trend. 

The worst part is that all of this becomes normalized and internalized, so students just accept that their health will suffer and expect that they will be overloaded with stress. You feel guilty for not running yourself ragged. It is hard to take care of yourself in a culture like this. This is what makes thriving on campus so difficult, but so important. If students don’t make a concerted effort to take care of themselves, then they really do suffer. And if the university itself does not do enough to address its own culture, then it is failing its students. Yet having gone just  through a third year moving from panicked to stressed to utterly spent, I think it’s vital for this trend to be addressed and examined. 

Stanford has to do more for its students. It cannot simply create more social spaces across campus in a meager attempt to appease students and then ignore the more pressing need to take care of their health. In the last year, Stanford has hired more counselors at the Psychological and Counseling Services, but still not nearly enough. The university has promised that there will be changes for its mental health resources, but when will this happen? Right now Stanford is being purely reactionary where it needs to be proactive about its culture. It is obsessing over the symptom, not the cause. The university is grinding down its students and then wondering why they’re becoming so burned out. 

One easy solution would be to regulate the amount of work professors can give so that students don’t have to spend 40 hours a week trying to finish one homework assignment. The university needs to address the leave of absence policy (the only way for students to take time away) so that it is easier for students to take smaller breaks when needed, and not have to forfeit an entire quarter in the process. It has to restructure the way it teaches so that students don’t have to plan out all four years of college when they first step foot on campus if they want to graduate. There should also be more systems in place, more than the occasional office hour, to help people who have fallen behind catch up on work rather than tell them to learn the missing material on their own time. The university administration needs to do more to discourage students from taking on mass workloads that become detrimental to their health.

The distinct lack of care that Stanford shows its students sometimes borders on despicable. Even more so when one remembers the other resources Stanford has, including an entire hospital psychiatry ward on campus. Given what Stanford is capable of, how have they not invested more in proactively trying to help their students? Could anyone doubt that if it wanted to, with all the resources it has at its disposal, Stanford could revolutionize mental health in college? It is insulting that Stanford seems to care more about building roundabouts than it does about ensuring the health of its own students. How much longer are students going to have to suffer before Stanford decides that it should make some effort to address the root causes of students’ poor mental health?

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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