Julia Nagel/Sun Assistant Photography Editor

A student learns in a Zoom class in Goldwin Smith Hall; burnout and increased stress are becoming increasingly apparent among Cornellians.

March 21, 2021

Students Are Coming Down With a Bad Case of Burnout Without Breaks to Remedy it

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As the spring semester surges forward and exams continue to accumulate, Cornellians are finding themselves facing a challenging reality halfway through the semester: they’re already burnt out. 

Kayla Butler ’24 defined burnout as a combination of mental and physical stress.

“You’re not energized, you’re on autopilot and your brain is slow and sluggish,” Butler said. “Everything is telling you that you can’t keep going and you tell yourself that you have to keep going.” 

Many students have noted an unusual surge of prelims this semester with limited time to adequately prepare.

Asher Lal ’24 is weeks into her first semester in Ithaca. On top of the stress of being away from home in a new environment, Lal has recently been taking at least one prelim per week –– a schedule that has contributed to an overwhelming cycle of burnout.

Lal found herself dreading the weekdays and looking towards each weekend for respite.

After recently completing a week with four prelims, Stephanie Wright ’22 said that her stress levels reached highs she’s never experienced in an academic setting.

“I have never been so stressed throughout my entire time at Cornell. Since coming to Cornell, I’ve become more anxious, but this week my anxiety was through the roof,” Wright said.

Shreya Paul ’24 said she feels more burnt out one and a half months into the spring semester than she felt all of last semester. 

“It’s gloomy, it’s sad, all I can think about is how stressed I am about work and getting that work done,” Paul said, “I feel very mechanical, like a machine or robot that’s just doing problem sets, writing essays, studying for exams. But I don’t feel like any of it is enhancing me and I can’t really think beyond the immediate fact that I have to get these things done.”

According to Wright, much of this exhaustion may be attributed to the insufficient nature of the March Wellness Days. To some, the Wellness Days acted as a double-edged sword: If students decided to get ahead on work, they were not adhering to the intended break, but if they did take time off, their work piled up, contributing to an already overwhelming to-do list.

“I tried to listen to the professors and to the University [when] they said these wellness days are really for you to take a break and try not to do any work, but in the back of my head, I felt like I really should be doing work because I knew that I had four prelims in the [following] week and there wasn’t a lot of time to spare,” Wright said. 

Anna Kim ’24 spoke about how one of her biggest motivators were the breaks –– and their removal has posed significant challenges to her levels of contentment. “Having nothing to look forward to is the hardest part about feeling burnt out,” she said. 

Some students have had more positive experiences than others with prelims and the Wellness Days.

Nicole Liao ‘24 thought that the wellness days were an adequate break. She liked that it wasn’t too long of a break, noting that an extended period of time off would have caused her to lose momentum in all her classes.

Brian Zhong ’22 appreciated that the Wellness Days were in the middle of the week while classes were still going on. 

“I liked that it wasn’t too long of a break that you’d forget classroom material,” Zhong said. 

Still, many Cornellians have been looking for creative ways to combat the burnout they’ve experienced so early in the semester. 

Michelle Chang ’21 likes to roll out a yoga mat and stretch out the stress with her roommate. “I’ve also been experimenting with new recipes. When you’re stressed about school, it’s nice to have some other creative outlet to relieve that stress. For me, that often comes out in cooking and working out,” Chang said.

Ale Cuellar ’24 has been taking walks around campus ––  but even then, he knows that he has to eventually turn around and “go right back at it.”. Cuellar also mentioned that talking to his advisor provided him with a lot of helpful information and advice that relieved some of his worries.

Despite student efforts to mitigate stress, many Cornellians have expressed a need for  the University to address burnout through improved resources and other adjustments

“Cornell does offer a lot of mental health resources but they’re not always super accessible. I think having an easier route to finding those resources would be really helpful,” Wright said. “Professors really emphasize your mental health but when it comes down to it, they aren’t that willing to accomodate you.”

Chang also noted the University’s decision to get rid of EARS peer counseling, suggesting that bringing the organization back could be beneficial in dealing with burnout.

“There doesn’t seem to be much acknowledgement from the University or professors that students are going through a lot right now,” Paul said. “It feels like we’re all burnt out but no one really cares.”