In the two years since the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything about life in the United States, you’ve probably heard phrases like online burnout, Zoom fatigue, and Text Neck so frequently that you’re burned out on the very topic. Our apologies for bringing it up again, but it’s an important subject, mostly because it’s extremely common right now among both students and working professionals.
According to a workplace study called The Webcam Survey: Exhausted or Engaged?, 49% of those surveyed repoprted a high degree of exhaustion as a direct consequence of constant videoconferencing, an increased preponderance of meetings, and the pressure to remain on webcam for significant portions of the day. Combined with the physical strain of near-constant screen time, a sense of social isolation, and an absence of external structure, students are at an increasingly high risk of general academic burnout.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Online education is meant to be a boon for those of us who might otherwise lack access to opportunity, and to one another. And during the pandemic, it truly has been a lifeline to the world outside of quarantine. Imagine yourself enduring Spanish influenza in the 1910s without the ability to virtually visit loved ones an hour or a world away; without daily educational check-ins that, fractured though they may be, are nonetheless a window into continuity; without the weekly viral TikTok challenges that served to distract you from the heaviness of reality.
Obviously we’re better off for having the internet at our fingertips during a global pandemic. It certainly beats the alternative. But evidence suggests we could be doing a lot better.
As a student, you may not be able to control the big picture stuff like the deficits in online instructional training, curriculum that is poorly adapted to the medium, and flaws in your district’s technical infrastructure. These conditions have beset the countless educators and institutions forced into a sudden and unplanned transition. There are, however, many things you, as the student, can control about your own online educational experience. And therein lies the key to preventing online burnout.
If you’d like to learn more about the relationship between online education and the COVID-19 pandemic, check out Online Education and COVID-19-The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Otherwise read on for 10 Ways Online Students Can Prevent Educational Burnout...
According to Frontiers in Public Health,
The major factors contributing to burnout are overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism, and detachment. In addition, a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment may ensue. But we may be able to fight off these feelings when we recognize and act on the warning signs of burnout like sustained feelings of fatigue, difficulty sleeping, increased irritability, declining motivation, heightened anxiety, boredom, and the inability to concentrate or focus on your studies. Naturally, we all have off days. None of us are immune to these feelings. But when these feelings become a predominant part of your learning experience, they may be symptoms of impending burnout. Take these feelings as a sign that you need to perform routine mental health maintenance even as you pursue your studies with full-throttle determination.
Many students who are new to online education struggle with the loss of structure. No more daily commute. No more school bells. No more carefully scheduled intervals allowing you just enough time to walk from one class to the next. With online education, showing up anywhere on time is now entirely up to you. For many, this new experience can feel slightly formless, which can ultimately snowball into a total lack of motivation. Creating a structure that works for you can preempt the feeling that time is irrelevant and nothing really matters. Wake up at the same time every day regardless of when your classes start. Designate a specific period of the day for studying and homework. Wrap up your school day at a specified time. Eat meals at regular intervals, and build in time for periodic breaks. If you miss the daily commute, consider taking a five minute walk around the block to start and end your day. The more structured your day is, the less vulnerable you’ll be to feelings of academic and emotional listlessness.
Another emotional challenge commonly faced by online students is the absence of the immediate feedback and gratification that can occur in the classroom. For many students, productive classroom discussions and real-time exchanges with a professor can create a sense of achievement. This may be a major source of positive reinforcement and motivation. In its absence, it will be up to you, as an online student, to identify and mark off your own little victories every day. Daily and weekly to-do lists are a great way to accomplish this. Your to-do lists should include all of the academic, personal, and general tasks you need to complete, both short- and long-term. With every item you check off, you get to notch another achievement during your day. Whether it’s as big as completing a huge research project or as small as calling the plumber about the leaky faucet, knocking items off of your to-do list can be remarkably therapeutic. This way, you get to be your own greatest source of positive reinforcement.
One of the oft-overlooked causes of online burnout is the physical toll that constant screen time can take on your body. Frontiers in Public Health says that
Observing screens and hunching over smartphones for extended periods of time leads to physical harm. Fares et al. found neck pain to be a prominent problem among adolescent and pediatric users, mainly due to the prolonged and distorted positioning when using these devices. Specifically, bending the neck when using digital screens and smartphones may progressively lead to stresses on the cervical spine. The best way to offset the impact of this condition, commonly referred to as Text Neck or Tech Neck, is to give yourself regular breaks from work. Use these breaks to stand up, stretch your back and neck, walk around, do some jumping jacks—anything to break up the physical monotony of staring at your screen.
As long as you’re taking breaks, there are few better ways to break up the day than to immerse yourself in the outdoors. As an online student, you may not yearn for the old days of commuting to the physical classroom, but your body will miss getting outside. Though our lives are lived predominantly indoors, we are evolutionarily predisposed to benefit from fresh air, open spaces, and sunshine. These things are pretty much the opposite of staring at a screen all day. Bridge Universe says that
Simply letting natural light hit your eyes at some point during the day will help you to regulate your sleeping patterns (even if you have a ‘night shift’ schedule) and reduce the potential disruption that sitting in front of a screen all day can do. Find a hiking trail in your area, take a walk around the neighborhood, or just sit on your stoop for a few minutes and feel the sunshine on your face.
If you are heading outside, there are few more constructive things to do with that time than exercising. And as it happens, the connection between physical activity and academic performance is well documented. The CDC notes that
Higher physical activity and physical fitness levels are associated with improved cognitive performance (e.g., concentration, memory) among students. For online students, the benefits may be even greater, as regular physical activity can offset the sedentary nature of computer-mediated activity. Find a routine that works with your schedule and lifestyle, whether that means low-impact jogging, long walks, Peloton rides, or one of the essentially infinite yoga, aerobics, cardio, or strength-training instructional videos you can find on YouTube.
While you’re putting together a routine that works for you, don’t forget to build in a free swim period every day. Go to a coffee shop with friends. Take an hour (or more) to shop. Binge-watch your favorite show. These activities all count as mental health maintenance. The best way to offset the isolation you may feel as an online student is to place a greater emphasis on engagement in other parts of your life. With all proper respect to the COVID protocols and safety requirements called for in any given time and place, make weekend plans, join in-person study groups, and create time for your own interests, especially those that allow you to unplug from your devices.
Negative lifestyle habits like tobacco use, vaping, excessive alcohol consumption, and overeating aren’t just bad for your physical health. These habits are also bad for your mental well-being and your educational outcomes. Ironically, these are also habits that many students will lean into as they struggle to manage stressful situations like the sudden transition to online education, academic pressures, and anxieties related to the pandemic. Remember that the same bad habits we fall into to offset these stressors will only magnify them over time. If you need help, reach out to the mental health support service at your school. Whether you’re struggling with alcohol or drug abuse, smoking, or nutritional issues, the best online schools will provide access to the personnel who can help.
Regular, high-quality sleep is vital, but it is often overlooked as we pursue an ambitious combination of educational goals, professional commitments, and social obligations. Your sleep habits actually take on even greater importance in the transition to online education. In the absence of a regular commute, and perhaps with the addition of more asynchronous learning experiences, it can be easy to dismiss the importance of a good night’s sleep. But don’t be deceived by your less rigid schedule. The demands on your time may be more flexible, but they are just as great. And both your body and mind still require a good night’s sleep to handle these demands.
If you’re suddenly feeling like all these recommended lifestyle changes carry their own pressure, you’ll be relieved to know that there’s an app for that. Actually, there are a ton of apps for that. It’s really about finding one that matches your specific needs. Making the transition to online education is a psychological adjustment. Some of these habit tracking apps can provide strong support as you make the adjustment. According to Lifehack,
there are many habits tracking apps available especially designed to help you to set goals, keep track of your habits and tackle your bad habits for free. The best habit tracker website or app can help you in your journey to ensure you stay on track with your goals.
One key takeaway from our discussion is that the promise of online education can only be fulfilled when students have equal access to academic opportunity and mental health support. For more, find out why it’s important to Protect Your Mental Health While Getting Your Online Education.
For a great set of study tools, check out our list of resources for online college and grad students.